World's Oldest Footprints Discovered on Ancient Seafloor

Katie Ramirez
June 8, 2018

Chinese and American paleontologists reported on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances the discovery of earliest animal fossil footprint ever found.

These trackways, preserved near burrows, were discovered in Dengying Formation - a rich fossil preserve in China's south - and constitute the first evidence confirming that an ancient group of animals called bilateria actually pre-dates the Cambrian explosion.

So, what type of creature has left behind its mark all those 550 million years ago in China?

The authors can't tell exactly what kind of animal made the tracks, but they can narrow it down to something with pairs of matching legs.

This 'explosion' - which ignited some 541 million years ago - saw the rapid emergence of a diversified spread of animal phyla over a period lasting perhaps 25 million years.

"The trackways are somewhat irregular, consisting of two rows of imprints that are arranged in series or repeated groups", explained notes from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. However, Xiao said they are uncertain if the creature belonged to the arthropod family or whether it has many or two legs. This sea-dwelling animal had paired appendages that raised its body above the ocean floor, the footprints left behind by its multiple feet suggest.

"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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"If an animal makes footprints, the footprints are depressions on the sediment surface, and the depressions are filled with sediments from the overlying layer". Take that, rest of the pre-Cambrian life forms!

"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.

"It is important to know when the first appendages appeared, and in what animals, because this can tell us when and how animals began to change the Earth in a particular way."

He added: "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)".

The animal appears to have paused from time to time, since the trackways seem to be connected to burrows that may have been dug into the sediment, perhaps to obtain food.

"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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