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Tetrapod trackways from the early Middle Devonian period of Poland

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Abstract

The fossil record of the earliest tetrapods (vertebrates with limbs rather than paired fins) consists of body fossils and trackways. The earliest body fossils of tetrapods date to the Late Devonian period (late Frasnian stage) and are preceded by transitional elpistostegids such as Panderichthys and Tiktaalik that still have paired fins. Claims of tetrapod trackways predating these body fossils have remained controversial with regard to both age and the identity of the track makers. Here we present well-preserved and securely dated tetrapod tracks from Polish marine tidal flat sediments of early Middle Devonian (Eifelian stage) age that are approximately 18 million years older than the earliest tetrapod body fossils and 10 million years earlier than the oldest elpistostegids. They force a radical reassessment of the timing, ecology and environmental setting of the fish–tetrapod transition, as well as the completeness of the body fossil record.

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Figure 1: The locality.
Figure 2: Trackways.
Figure 3: Footprints.
Figure 4: Foot morphologies.
Figure 5: Phylogenetic implications of tracks.

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Acknowledgements

We thank G. Pieńkowski, Z. Złonkiewicz, S. Salwa (Polish Geological Institute, Warsaw and Kielce) and J. Dzik (Polish Academy of Sciences and Warsaw University) for their help in fieldwork. This research was supported, in part, by funding from the Faculty of Biology, Warsaw University and Polish Geological Institute. We thank J. O. Ebbestad (Museum of Evolution, Uppsala University) for help with preparing plaster casts of the trackways and P. Ślipiński (Museum and Institute of Zoology, PAN) for help with scanning. I. Jackson (Uppsala University) corrected the English of the Supplementary Information text. P.E.A. acknowledges the support of the Swedish Research Council.

Author Contributions G.N., P.S., K.N. and M.N. discovered and collected the Zachełmie footprints, wrote the Supplementary Information text, and provided all photographs and all geological information about the locality. G.N. invited P.E.A. to participate in the study. P.E.A. identified the footprints as tetrapod and wrote the main text in consultation with G.N.

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Correspondence to Per E. Ahlberg.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Notes, Supplementary References, List of Supplementary Track Specimens and Supplementary Figures 1-25 with Legends. (PDF 17634 kb)

Supplementary Movie 1

This movie was generated from a surface scan of Muz. PGI 1728.II.1, the best-preserved single footprint and shows the entire print. (MPG 1829 kb)

Supplementary Movie 2

This movie was generated from a surface scan of Muz. PGI 1728.II.1, the best-preserved single footprint and shows the foot and digits in close-up. (MPG 1822 kb)

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Niedźwiedzki, G., Szrek, P., Narkiewicz, K. et al. Tetrapod trackways from the early Middle Devonian period of Poland. Nature 463, 43–48 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08623

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