They said they don't know exactly what species the footprints belong to, but described the creature as a bilaterian animal, like an arthropod.
It is unclear just what kind of tiny creature left the tracks, which lie just a few millimeters apart and look like a two rows of shallow depressions, or holes, marked in the dark gray limestone.
"This is considered the earliest animal fossil footprint record", said the report in the United States journal, Science Advances.
"Although the exact identity of the trace maker of the Shibantan trackways is hard to determine in the absence of body remains at the end of the trackways, we suggest that the trace maker was probably a bilaterian animal with paired appendages", the authors reported.
Researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Virginia Tech studied ancient trackways and burrows found in the Yangtze Gorges area of South 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.
They are often assumed to have appeared and radiated suddenly during the "Cambrian Explosion" about 541-510 million years ago, although it has always been suspected that their evolutionary ancestry was rooted in the Ediacaran Period. They are one of the most diverse animal groups in existence today.
Until the current discovery, however, no fossil record of animal appendages had been found in that period. They hoped that the sunlight would reveal subtle marks left by ancient organisms on the Shibantan trackways. "Also, they are organised in repeated groups, as expected if the animal had multiple paired appendages". Take that, rest of the pre-Cambrian life forms!
"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 to the Earth in a particular way". 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.
While bilaterian animals - including arthropods and annelids - were suspected to have first stretched their innovative legs prior to the Cambrian explosion, in what's called the Ediacaran Period, before now there was no evidence for it in the fossil record.
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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