Science

'Earliest animal fossil footprints discovered in China'

'Earliest animal fossil footprints discovered in China'

Pretty old, right? Well, no, not compared to the footprints just discovered in the Dengying Formation in southern China-these marks are the first known evidence of feet.

Researchers have unearthed the almost 600 million years old fossil footprints of animals, considered to be the earliest record, in China. They are often assumed to have appeared and radiated suddenly during the "Cambrian Explosion" about 541-510 million years ago, although it has always been suspected that their evolutionary ancestry was rooted in the Ediacaran Period.

The fossils, which were found in the Yangtze Gorges area of south China, lie between two rock layers that have been radiocarbon-dated to 551m and 541m years old, meaning the footprints were made sometime between these dates.

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

Indeed, we won't know for sure until more fossils are discovered. The trackways are somewhat irregular, consisting of two rows of imprints that are arranged in series or repeated groups.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, ancient creatures started emerging from the ground and learning to walk on a pair of appendages. Bilaterian animals (like annelids and arthropods) have appendages that are paired.

The presence of paired appendages (a primitive version of legs and arms) in the anatomy of this prehistoric creature is mirrored in the way the fossil footprints are laid out, Xiao explains. This new discovery is not providing scientists with all the needed information, so for now we can not really determine what type of animal the footprints might have belonged to. They observed the trackways, which were not regular, and after analyzing their characteristics, they reached the conclusion that these were formed by bilaterian animals with paired appendages.




According to the researchers, this is the first evidence that bilaterian animals existed before the "Cambrian Explosion". They are one of the most diverse animal groups in existence today.

"This is considered the earliest animal fossil footprint record", the researchers wrote in the report.

"Animals use their appendages to move around, to build their homes, to fight, to feed, and sometimes to help mate", one of the researchers, geobiologist Shuhai Xiao from Virginia Tech University, told The Guardian.

Because the footprints are trace fossils, not fossils of the animal itself, it's going to be hard to credit a particular branch of the Tree of Life with the title of "First to Develop Limbs".

The trackways indicate a connection to burrowing, suggesting that whatever animal this was might have had a habit of digging into sediments and microbial mats.

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


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