540m-year-old bug tracks are oldest footprints ever discovered

The fossil tracks offer "some of the earliest known evidence for animal appendages and extend the earliest trace fossil record of animals with appendages from the early Cambrian (485 million to 541 million years ago) to the late Ediacaran Period".

Previously, it was believed animals with pairs of legs capable of leaving such footprints first appeared during the "Cambrian Explosion" about 541 to 510 million years ago.

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 presence of paired appendages (a primitive version of legs and arms) in the anatomy of this prehistoric creature is mirrored in the way the fossil footprints are laid out, Xiao explains.

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 USA and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology (NIGP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The trackways are irregular, the scientists found, with two rows of imprints that suggest they were created by a bilaterian animal whose appendages raised it above the ground. This early evidence of limbed critters is important for scientists, he added, as it can help us understand their evolution.

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Prior to this, animal life on Earth consisted of simpler, single-celled or multicellular organisms, but the Cambrian Period gave rise to more complex creatures of a kind we recognise today, including bilaterian animals, who exhibited the first bilateral symmetry. The fossils date back to almost 3.5 billion years ago and are strong evidence of the earliest life that existed on Earth.

The trackways are the earliest discovered indication of when animals evolved appendages. "Also, they are organized in repeated groups, as expected if the animal had multiple paired appendages".

The scientists weren't able to locate the body fossils of the animals that made these traces.

The animal appears to have paused from time to time, since the trackways seem to be connected to burrows that may have been dug into the sediment, perhaps to obtain food.

'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.

The researchers speculate that the same creature left both the tracks and the burrows, suggesting an animal that scurried and tunneled its way across the ground.

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