Tuesday, 19 June, 2018

Scientists find 540-million-year-old animal footprints

Trackways and burrows excavated in situ from the Ediacaran Dengying Formation. Credit NIGP Image The prints were found near the Yangtze Gorges. Credit NIGP
Doris Mccormick | 09 June, 2018, 11:30

An global team of scientists has just discovered fossil footprints in China, dating back approximately 635-541 million years, in the Ediacaran Period.

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 the earliest discovered indication of when animals evolved appendages.

Until the current discovery, however, no fossil record of animal appendages had been found in that period.

It was a commonly held belief in scientific circles that animals with limbs and jointed appendages did not appear and diversify till the Cambrian Explosion that took place around 541 to 510 million years ago. "This style of preservation is distinct from other types of trace fossils, for example, tunnels or burrows, or body fossils".

"The rock that contains the fossil has been very well dated between 551 and 541 million years old", study author Zhe Chen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Agence France-Presse in an email. The study says that these footprints were about five hundred and fifty-one million years ago. The team is involved in researching about the tracks and burrows found in the Denying Formation.

We don't know exactly what species the footprints belong to, but scientists described the creature as a bilaterian animal, like an arthropod.

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'At least three living groups of animals have paired appendages (represented by arthropods such as bumble bees, annelids such as bristle worms, and tetrapods such as humans)', said Dr Chen.

Researchers do not know what animals made the footprints but have interpreted the two parallel rows of dots as rows of tracks.

This places them perhaps even 10 million years before the "Cambrian Explosion" (roughly 541 million years ago), the moment in time which sparked the incredible evolution of life that led to the fantastic diversity of species that we see today.

'Arthropods and annelids, or their ancestors, are possibilities.

Bilaterians are one of the most common body types in the world, now and throughout history, but previous fossil evidence for them only goes back as far as the Cambrian.

"But", he added, "Unless the animal died and was preserved next to its footprints, it is hard to say with confidence who made the footprints". Among other things, it is also worth noting the trackways appear connected to the burrows, something that indicated the animals probably dug into the sediments in order to consume food or oxygen.

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