First footprints of animals discovered in China

Animals left the first footprints on Earth up to 551 million years ago, according to ancient tracks found in China.

Dozen of fossils were discovered in an Ediacaran Period Dengying Formation limestone strata, which dates from between 551m and 541m years ago, in the Three Gorges area of Yi Chang city.

The study entitled "Late Ediacaran trackways produced by bilaterian animals with paired appendages" was published June 6 in the journal Science Advances. Until the current discovery, however, no fossil record of animal appendages had been found in the Ediacaran Period.

"These trace fossils include burrows and possible trackways that are preserved in close proximity and are apparently connected", the scientists noted in an introduction to the report. Utah's Red Fleet State Park recently reported that tourists have been ripping up 200-million-year-old dinosaur tracks and tossing them into a reservoir nearby.

That's largely because Ediacaran life hadn't yet evolved the kinds of hard bones and shells that fossilize easily, so scientists usually have to rely on trace fossils instead - burrows, tracks and other secondary evidence of their existence. 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.

Experts previously believed this type of creature appeared during the "Cambrian Explosion" around 541 to 510million years ago.

They said they don't know exactly what species the footprints belong to, but described the creature as a bilaterian animal, like an arthropod. Some of Earth's first burrowing creatures emerged during this time, as evidenced by the fossilised burrows themselves.

"If an animal makes footprints, the footprints are depressions on the sediment surface, and the depressions are filled with sediments from the overlying layer".

Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology and Virginia Tech have teamed together to find the prints and analyze them.

"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. This animal, it's theorised, dug into sediments and microbial mats (layered sheets of microorganisms) in search of food and gulps of oxygen. It was after this point that arthropods (jointed limb insects like roaches and spiders) and annelids (ringed worms) completely took over the planet.

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