Sunday, 21 October, 2018

Earth's oldest animal footprints found in central China

Trackways and burrows excavated in situ from the Ediacaran Dengying Formation. Credit NIGP Image The prints were found near the Yangtze Gorges. Credit NIGP
Cary Marshall | 09 June, 2018, 11:26

What the team actually reported to have discovered were fossil footprints for animal appendages. Soft tissues aren't prone to fossilisation, since they degrade quickly after death, so scientists have only a shady conception of what some of our planet's earliest animals were like.

An global team of scientists have discovered what they claim is the earliest animal fossil footprint on record.

The trackways reveal that a bilaterian animal - a creature with bilateral symmetry that has a head at one end, a back end at the other, and asymmetrical right and left side - such as arthropods and annelids made the tracks.

Still, this discovery means that paleontologists will have to revise their vision of how life developed in Earth's primordial oceans.

Animals use their appendages or outgrowths to move around, make their homes, feed, and find mates.

An incredibly rare finding: researchers have found the tracks from a rare animal dating 551 million years ago, somewhere in the mountainous Yangtze Gorges, in southern China.

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.

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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.

The Chinese and American team led by Dr Shuhai Xiao, from Virginia Tech in the U.S., wrote in the journal Science Advances: "The irregular arrangement of tracks in the trackways may be taken as evidence that the movement of their trace maker's appendages was poorly coordinated and is distinct from the highly coordinated metachronal (wave-like) rhythm typical of modern arthropods".

The Cambrian Period occurred between 541m and 488m years ago and is considered an important point in the history of life as many major groups of animals still alive today first appeared during the period. The body fossils of the animals that made these traces, however, have not yet been found. Similar burrows around the same age left by tiny worm-like creature have previously been found in Brazil, but the Chinese fossils suggest the presence of more complex organisms.

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

As modern arthropods and annelids served as appropriate analogs for the interpretation of this fossil, the researchers posit the animal in question could be the ancestor of either of the two groups.

The researchers, led by Zhe Chen and Shuhai Xiao, say it's highly likely the prints were produced by a bilaterian animal with paired appendages, but they know very little beyond that.

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