Earliest animal footprints found in China

But these new fossils date back to the Ediacaran Period, which lasted between 635 and 541million years ago.

Created before the Cambrian Explosion-a sudden burst in animal diversity that took place about 541 million years ago-scientists think these are the oldest trackways ever discovered on Earth.

"We do not know exactly what animals made these footprints, other than that the animals must have been bilaterally symmetric because they had paired appendages", Xiao explains.

An worldwide team of scientists found that the fossil of an animal appendage dates back to the Ediacaran period, sometime between 541 and 635 million years ago. "Unless the animal died and was preserved next to its footprints", said Xiao, "it is hard to say who made the footprints".

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 USA and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology (NIGP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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

Until now, there had been no evidence of limbed creatures prior to the Cambrian Explosion, say the researchers from Virginia Tech in the US.

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

"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.

This is a group of animals characterised by having paired appendages - in this case, perhaps, paired legs.

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.

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.

Bilaterian animals such as arthropods and annelids have paired appendages or "legs" and are among the most diverse animals today and in the geological past.

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.

Tampa: The earliest known footprints left by an animal on Earth, dating back some 541 million years, have been uncovered in China, a study said Wednesday.

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