These 550-Million-Year-Old Footprints Could Be The Oldest Ever Discovered

08 Juin, 2018, 01:58 | Auteur: Therese Cote

The researchers speculate that the same creature left both the tracks and the burrows, suggesting an animal that scurried and tunneled its way across the ground.

Although it's not clear what animal left these ancient tracks behind - since only the trace fossils (evidence that an animal has been there) were discovered, and not the fossils themselves - the footprints date back 551 million to 541 million years ago, to the Ediacaran Period.

Researchers on the study came from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Virginia Tech in the United States. This is considered the earliest animal fossil footprint record.

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.

"These trace fossils represent the earliest known trackways".

It is unclear what kind of tiny creature left the tracks, which lie just a few millimetres apart and look like a two rows of shallow depressions, or holes, marked in the dark grey limestone. This critter was roaming the planet millions of years before the first mammals, the first dinosaurs, and even the first fish.

The authors can't tell exactly what kind of animal made the tracks, but they can narrow it down to something with pairs of matching legs. They are one of the most diverse animal groups in existence today.

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"The trackways are somewhat irregular, consisting of two rows of imprints that are arranged in series or repeated groups", explained notes from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"The characteristics of the trackways indicate that they were produced by bilaterian animals with paired appendages that raised the animal body above the water-sediment interface".

"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 the Earth in a particular way."

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.

While science has previously recorded that bilaterian animals, such as arthropods and annelid worms, first emerged during the "Cambrian Explosion" (541 to 510 million years ago), this finding proves that these creatures actually evolved earlier, confirming the suspicion shared by some researchers.

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.

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

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