Scientists at Ohio State University found the fossilized trail of an aquatic creature that date back some 570 million years. This sample suggests animals walked on land 30 million years earlier than the general consensus.
The fossilized trail of an aquatic creature suggests that animals walked using legs at least 30 million years earlier than had been thought.
The tracks -- two parallel rows of small dots, each about 2 millimeters in diameter -- date back some 570 million years, to the Ediacaran period.
The Ediacaran preceded the Cambrian period, the time when most major groups of animals first evolved.
Scientists once thought that it was primarily microbes and simple multicellular animals that existed prior to the Cambrian, but that notion is changing, explained Loren Babcock, professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.
"We keep talking about the possibility of more complex animals in the Ediacaran -- soft corals, some arthropods, and flatworms -- but the evidence has not been totally convincing," he said. "But if you find evidence, like we did, of an animal with legs -- an animal walking around -- then that makes the possibility much more likely."
Soo-Yeun Ahn, a doctoral student at Ohio State, presented the discovery in a poster session at the Geological Society of America meeting Sunday in Houston. Coauthors included Margaret Rees of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and J. Stewart Hollingsworth of the Institute for Cambrian Studies.
Babcock was surveying rocks in the mountains near Goldfield, Nevada, with Hollingsworth in 2000 when he found the tracks.
"This was truly an accidental discovery. We came on an outcrop that looked like it crossed the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary, so we stopped to take a look at it. We just sat down and started flipping rocks over. We were there less than an hour when I saw it."
The creature must have stepped lightly onto the soft marine sediment, because its legs only pressed shallow pinpoints into that long-ago sea bed. But when Babcock flipped over the rock containing those tracks, the low-angle sunlight cast the dots in crisp shadow.