Wednesday, 15 August, 2018

Scientists find 540-million-year-old animal footprints

Cary Marshall | 08 June, 2018, 01:55

Scientists have discovered the earliest footprint of an animal on Earth, dating back 541 million years.

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.

The study was published online today (June 6) in the journal Science Advances.

No body fossils for these animals have been found yet, however, and the scientists believe such remnants may not have been preserved. This critter was roaming the planet millions of years before the first mammals, the first dinosaurs, and even the first fish.

However, this creature - which provides the earliest evidence of an animal with legs - would have existed around 10 million years before then. But they say the tracks probably belong to a bilaterian. The new findings suggest animals evolved primitive "arms" and "legs" earlier than previously thought.

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

These trace fossils represent some of the earliest known evidence for animal appendages and extend the earliest trace fossil record of animals with appendages from the early Cambrian to the late Ediacaran Period. They are often assumed to have appeared and radiated suddenly during the "Cambrian Explosion" about 541-510 million years ago, although it has always been suspected that their evolutionary ancestry was rooted in the Ediacaran Period.

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By looking at the ancient trackway - of which The Guardian has made an animation of, that you can watch below - the team was able to determine that this prehistoric creature had multiple paired feet that raised its body above the ocean floor. 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", he said, adding that the movement of sediments by the first legged creatures could have had a major impact on the Earth's geochemical cycles and climate.

"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."

The 550-million-year-old tracks measure only a few millimetres in width, and consist of two rows of imprints arranged in what the researchers describe as a "poorly organised series or repeated groups", which could be due to variations in gait, pace, or interactions with the surface of what was once an ancient riverbed.

The trackways appear to be connected to burrows, suggesting that the animals may have periodically dug into sediments, perhaps to mine oxygen and food.

Now, the discovery of the trackways and burrows shows that animals with appendages lived during the Ediacaran period, the researchers said.

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