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Researchers Find Oldest Known Footprints On Earth
June 19, 2018

A team of scientists led by Shuhai Xiao, of the Virginia Tech College of Science, have discovered the oldest known footprints ever found, estimated at 540 million to 550 million years old.

A closeup photograph of the world's oldest known footprints, made by a small unknown bug, were found in South China by Virginia Tech's Shuhai Xiao and a research team. The total area covered by the tracks is no larger than the palm of an average person's hand.

Found in a small chunk of sediment rock in a shallow sea bottom in China, the tiny tracks – millimeters in width – were made by an unknown bug-like creature no bigger than a thumb. The footrail is only a few inches long, no bigger than an average hand palm. The findings of these ancient footprints are published in the latest issue of Science Advances and may help scientists determine when and how legs and limbs evolved.

“We were trying to answer the question ‘when did animals began to have appendages, such as legs and leglike structures?’,” said Xiao, a professor in the Department of Geosciences. “The formation of legs helped animals to change the world. Animals use legs and limbs to move sediments, to help mate, to feed, to fight, and, of course, to travel.”

Prof. Xiao and his colleagues from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology and Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment, both part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, discovered the trackway fossils from rocks in the Yangtze Gorges area of South China.

Previously identified footprints pegged the first walking animals with paired appendages at between 540 million and 530 million years old, in the early Cambrian Period. The new fossils are up to 10 million years older than previously known footprints.

The when of the tracks is known, but not the who. “We only found the footprints,” added Prof. Xiao, also an affiliated member of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. “We have not yet found the animals that made the footprints. Unlike many modern animals that have hard skeletons, these early animals did not yet evolve hard skeletons, so their likelihood of being preserved is slim.”

According to information, Prof. Xiao and his team gauge the little crawler may have had legs similar to a bumble bee or a bristle worm, as evidenced by the width and gait of the tracks. The trackways – so tiny they can be missed if seen at the wrong angle or in low light – are about half an inch in width and a few inches in length, consisting of two rows of dimples on the surface of the rocks.

Future visits to the site by Prof. Xiao and his team will include searches for more evidence of early animals.

Funding for the study was supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the National Geographic Society.

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