World's oldest footprints found in China

World's oldest footprints from 550,000,000 years ago discovered in south China

The Chinese and American team led by Dr Shuhai Xiao, from Virginia Tech in the USA, wrote in the journal Science Advances: "The irregular arrangement of tracks in the trackways may be taken as evidence that the movement of their trace maker's appendages was poorly coordinated and is distinct from the highly coordinated metachronal (wave-like) rhythm typical of modern arthropods".

An worldwide research team discovered the fossil tracks in China dating back to the Ediacaran Period, just before the Cambrian Explosion when life on Earth increased rapidly.

The trackways were found in the Yangtze Gorges area of South China, and date to the Ediacaran Period 541 million to 635 million years ago.

However, this creature - which provides the earliest evidence of an animal with legs - would have existed around 10 million years before then.

"These trace fossils represent the earliest known trackways". This critter was roaming the planet millions of years before the first mammals, the first dinosaurs, and even the first fish.

Prior to this, animal life on Earth consisted of simpler, single-celled or multicellular organisms, but the Cambrian Period gave rise to more complex creatures of a kind we recognise today, including bilaterian animals, who exhibited the first bilateral symmetry.

The identity of the creature that made the 546-million-year-old tracks is still unknown, but they come from the period when the earliest animals are thought to have evolved.

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They said they don't know exactly what species the footprints belong to, but described the creature as a bilaterian animal, like an arthropod. "Also, they are organized in repeated groups, as expected if the animal had multiple paired appendages".

"Animals use their appendages to move around, to build their homes, to fight, to feed, and sometimes to help mate", Virginia Tech University geobiologist and lead study author Shuhai Xiao told the Guardian.

"It is important to know when the first appendages appeared, and in what animals, because this can tell us when and how animals began to change to the Earth in a particular way".

The animal appears to have paused from time to time, since the trackways seem to be connected to burrows that may have been dug into the sediment, perhaps to obtain food.

While the researchers are unable to identify the animal behind the footprints, there are three types of living animals with paired appendages: arthropods such as bumble bees, annelids such as bristle worms, and tetrapods which include humans.

This is a sign of "complex behavior involving both walking and burrowing", the team argues in the paper.

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