Oldest 'footprints' found in China

540m-year-old bug tracks are oldest footprints ever discovered

This remarkable discovery is hailed in a study, published yesterday in the journal Science Advances by a research team from Virginia Tech University in the US and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology (NIGP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Unearthed in Southern China, the footprints are no more than a few millimeters wide, notes Science Alert, and were found in the Dengying Formation, a rich fossil site in the Yangtze Gorges area.

"Unless the animal died and [was] preserved next to its footprints, it is hard to say with confidence who made the footprints".

The trackways are somewhat irregular, consisting of two rows of imprints that are arranged in series or repeated groups, according to the study.

These trace fossils represent some of the earliest known evidence for animal appendages and extend the earliest trace fossil record of animals with appendages from the early Cambrian to the late Ediacaran Period. This critter was roaming the planet millions of years before the first mammals, the first dinosaurs, and even the first fish.

This 'explosion' - which ignited some 541 million years ago - saw the rapid emergence of a diversified spread of animal phyla over a period lasting perhaps 25 million years.

They said they don't know exactly what species the footprints belong to, but described the creature as a bilaterian animal, like an arthropod.

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"Animals use their appendages to move around, to build their homes, to fight, to feed, and sometimes to help mate", Xiao told The Guardian. This sea-dwelling animal had paired appendages that raised its body above the ocean floor, the footprints left behind by its multiple feet suggest.

The trackways are the earliest discovered indication of when animals evolved appendages.

Now, the discovery of the trackways and burrows shows that animals with appendages lived during the Ediacaran period, the researchers said.

Both the footprints and the borrows are known as "trace fossils", a term that refers to fossilized remnants that animals leave behind, such as fossilized poop, rather than fossils of the animals themselves.

Still, due to the proximity of the track marks to fossilised burrows discovered nearby, the researchers hypothesise the creature may have exhibited "complex behaviour", such as periodically digging into sediments to mine oxygen and food among its riverbed habitat.

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.

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