Trace fossils are features in the geological record that record biological activity, such as boring features left behind by digging organisms. If it can be proven that such features were indeed created by biology, trace fossils can provide invaluable details about the behavioural ecology of ancient life on Earth.

Discerning trace fossils from the matrix in which they are preserved can be difficult, particularly in the case of marine animal traces from the Ediacaran Period (635–541 Ma). These traces are usually small and can be hard to distinguish from the tubular fossils of the organisms that created them. A new study on relatively large traces of Ediacaran biota in South China is providing a unique opportunity to study this pivotal period in life’s evolution on Earth. These trace fossils are large enough to study with advanced analytical methods.

The paper, “Beyond the stony veil: Reconstructing the Earth’s earliest large animal traces via computed tomography X-ray imaging,” was published in the journal Precambrian Research. The work was supported by NASA Astrobiology through the Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology Program.