Earth's oldest animal footprints found in central China

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The study team involves the scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology.

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.

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. But what about Earth - when did animals first leave footprints here?

Without a complete fossil record though, any presumptions about the animal's habits or needs are pure speculation. Those footprints were dated to be between 11,000 and 14,000 years old, making them twice as old as the earliest human civilization.

The scientists in China have discovered the fossilized animal footprints of the ancient times.

"Although the exact identity of the trace maker of the Shibantan trackways is hard to determine in the absence of body remains at the end of the trackways, we suggest that the trace maker was probably a bilaterian animal with paired appendages", the authors reported.

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This places them perhaps even 10 million years before the "Cambrian Explosion" (roughly 541 million years ago), the moment in time which sparked the incredible evolution of life that led to the awesome diversity of species that we see today.

Prior to this discovery, it was suspected that animals with legs first appeared during this period, but no evidence had ever been found.

The 550-million-year-old tracks measure only a few millimetres in width, and consist of two rows of imprints arranged in what the researchers describe as a "poorly organised series or repeated groups", which could be due to variations in gait, pace, or interactions with the surface of what was once an ancient riverbed. This movement tells them that the animal may have been hunting to obtain food.

The research was published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Virginia Tech.

"These trace fossils include burrows and possible trackways that are preserved in close proximity and are apparently connected", the scientists noted in an introduction to the report. It was after this point that arthropods (jointed limb insects like roaches and spiders) and annelids (ringed worms) completely took over the planet.

The researchers, led by Zhe Chen and Shuhai Xiao, say it's highly likely the prints were produced by a bilaterian animal with paired appendages, but they know very little beyond that.

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