Scientists Discover the Oldest Animal Footprints on Earth

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. 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. The body fossils of the animals that made these traces, however, have not yet been found. This means that they lived during the Ediacaran Period, which lasted from 635 to 541 million years ago.

That timeline would place the tracks in the Edicaran Period, making them the first animal prints found from that time in history.

These trace fossils represent some of the earliest known evidence of animal appendages and extend the earliest trace fossil record of animals with appendages from the early Cambrian to the late Ediacaran Period.

The footprints were left by a very early bilaterian, a type of animal with bilateral symmetry (usually characterized by a head at the front, legs on either side, and a back portion at its rear).

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.

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.

They took a close look at the irregular trackways and witnessed two parallel rows of footprints, which appeared to have been arranged in a series or repeated groups.

The rock layers where the fossils were found date between 551 million and 541 million years ago, suggesting the footprints were made some time between those dates.

Senior author Shuhai Xiao, who is a geobiologist at the Virginia Tech University, says that the new discovery is a crucial step in identifying the first ever animal that grew a pair of legs.

"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", said Chen.

The trackways were reportedly leading to burrows, where researchers say it's possible the animal may have dug for food or oxygen.

The study is published June 6 in the journal Science Advances.

"Together, these trackways and burrows mark the arrival of a new era characterized by an increasing geobiological footprint of bilaterian animals", the researchers point out.

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