Recently, an worldwide research team reported discovering fossil footprints for animal appendages in the Ediacaran Period (about 635-541 million years ago) in China. The newfound trace fossils are some of the earliest known evidence for animal appendages on record.
This remarkable discovery is hailed in a study, published yesterday in the journal Science Advances by a research team from Virginia Tech University in the US and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology (NIGP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Virginia Tech in the United States studied trackways and burrows discovered in the Ediacaran Shibantan Member of the Dengying Formation (551 to 541 million years ago) in the Yangtze Gorges area of southern China.
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.
Before about 580 million years ago, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organised into colonies.
They said they don't know exactly what species the footprints belong to, but described the creature as a bilaterian animal, like an arthropod.
This is a group of animals characterised by having paired appendages - in this case, perhaps, paired legs.
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The identity of the creature that made the 546-million-year-old tracks is still unknown, but they come from the period when the earliest animals are thought to have evolved.
"Animals use their appendages to move around, to build their homes, to fight, to feed, and sometimes to help mate", Virginia Tech University geobiologist and lead study author Shuhai Xiao told the Guardian.
The ancient trackways and burrows are pictured.
"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."
Now, the discovery of the trackways and burrows shows that animals with appendages lived during the Ediacaran period, the researchers said. This means that the mystery animal might have periodically dug into the ocean floor's sediments and microbial matts, possibly to mine for oxygen and food, the researchers said.