Earliest animal footprints found in China

'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.

Created before the Cambrian Explosion-a sudden burst in animal diversity that took place about 541 million years ago-scientists think these are the oldest trackways ever discovered on Earth.

However, until now, no records of such fossils were ever found. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, together with colleagues from Virginia Tech in the United States, studied the trackways and burrows that were discovered in a fossil-rich area close to the Yangtze River.

The study entitled "Late Ediacaran trackways produced by bilaterian animals with paired appendages" was published June 6 in the journal Science Advances.

What the team actually reported to have discovered were fossil footprints for animal appendages.

Scientists think they have discovered the 550-million-year-old footprints of a small bug-like animal in the Yangtze Gorges area of China.

They date from about 540 million years ago, researchers say.

Prof Shuhai Xiao, a geobiologist at Virginia Tech University and senior author of the research, said the finding brings scientists closer to understanding what creatures were the first to evolve pairs of legs.

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"The new fossils are probably up to 10 million years older than previously known footprints", he said. The trackways are somewhat irregular, consisting of two rows of imprints that are arranged in series or repeated groups.

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

The fossils are just a few millimetres in width and Xiao's team spotted them after painstakingly tilting rock slabs at different angles so the sunlight would illuminate any subtle traces left by ancient bugs. Today, these creatures are spread throughout the Earth and are among the most diverse forms of animal life on the planet, notes the report.

The researchers don't yet know exactly what animal left these tracks, and unfortunately we may never know.

However, the fossil record of animal appendages confirms that their evolutionary ancestry was rooted in the Ediacaran Period, the researchers noted.

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

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

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