Scientists find 540-million-year-old animal footprints

Scientists in China believe tracks left by tiny animals that crawled in sea-shore mud around 550 million years ago are the oldest footprints on Earth.

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

The fossilised footprints were discovered by a team of scientists studying trackways and burrows in China.

This means that the symmetrical creature appeared before the Cambrian Period, Chen noted. In fact, the China discovery represents one of the earliest known records of animals evolving appendages. However, without a fossil record, it's hard to make any solid assumptions about the creature.

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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.

Also, the trackways appear to be connected to burrows, suggesting that the animals may have periodically dug into sediments and microbial mats, perhaps to mine oxygen and food.

The team from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Virginia Tech in the USA discovered two rows of imprints that are arranged in a series or repeated groups in irregular trackways and burrows.

They analysed the trackways in rock, usually created when an animal's weight causes a depression in the ground which is later filled in by a different sediment.

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Professor Shuhai Xiao, a geobiologist at Virginia Tech University, told The Guardian: "Animals use their appendages to move around, to build their homes, to fight, to feed, and sometimes to help mate".

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.

The researchers don't yet know exactly what animal left these tracks, and unfortunately we may never know. The rocks they come from are dated between 551 million and 541 million years old. "Late Ediacaran trackways produced by bilaterian animals with paired appendages".

"At least three living groups of animals have paired appendages (represented by arthropods, such as bumblebees; annelids, such as bristle worms; and tetrapods, such as humans)", Chen added.

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"Arthropods and annelids, or their ancestors, are possibilities".

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