Previously, scientists had discovered footprints as old as 530-540m years, but none predating the Cambrian period, which also began at this time and marked an explosion in the diversity and complexity of life on Earth.
An global team of scientists has recently uncovered what they believe are the earliest animal fossil footprints on record, Phys.org reports. This new discovery is not providing scientists with all the needed information, so for now we can not really determine what type of animal the footprints might have belonged to. This movement tells them that the animal may have been hunting to obtain food.
But these new fossils date back to the Ediacaran Period, which lasted between 635 and 541million years ago. Some of Earth's first burrowing creatures emerged during this time, as evidenced by the fossilised burrows themselves.
Still, this discovery means that paleontologists will have to revise their vision of how life developed in Earth's primordial oceans. In fact, the China discovery represents one of the earliest known records of animals evolving appendages. They found tracks in mud which were made 551 million years ago in southern China, in the Yangtze Gorges, by the Yangtze River.
The study was published online today (June 6) in the journal Science Advances. 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.
Unfortunately for scientists, the creature that made the footprints did not die nearby and leave an equally well preserved fossil to be studied.
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These trace fossils represent some of the earliest known evidence of animal appendages and extend the earliest trace fossil record of animals with appendages from the early Cambrian to the late Ediacaran Period.
Trackways and burrows excavated in situ from the Ediacaran Dengying Formation. Carved in limestone, the trackways consist of two rows of imprints arranged in repeated groups.
The characteristics of the trackways indicate that they were produced by bilaterian animals with paired appendages that raised the animal body above the water-sediment interface.
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.
In other words, this prehistoric critter wasn't a biped like you or me, but perhaps something with multiple paired legs - such as a spider, or a centipede - although given we have so little to go upon, the researchers emphasise it's impossible to know for sure what specific form this early walker embodied.