Remarkable fossils that date back to the earliest days of complex life on Earth are finally in public hands.
There’s a place where you can get a glimpse of the world as it was when animals were first becoming animals, and it has just become Australia’s newest national park.
Six hours north of Adelaide on a lonely stretch of highway west of the Flinders Ranges, a dirt road snakes off the bitumen, through a code-operated electric gate and into the semi-arid, saltbush-speckled expanse of Nilpena Station.
This gate isn’t there to protect cattle (Nilpena’s former business). Eroding out of Nilpena’s rolling hills are flat beds of sandstone with rippled surfaces, and on the underside of these slabs are the fossilised imprints of the earliest complex life on the planet.
“Half a billion years ago and then some, this was an ocean – a quiet sea,” explains Professor Mary Droser, a palaeontologist from the University of California, Riverside, US.
We’re standing on the loose rocks of a hillside, about a kilometre from the Nilpena homestead. The afternoon sun is turning vast slabs of sandstone golden and playing across shallow dips in the rock, illuminating the bodies of the very first animals that lived on the seafloor 550 million years ago.
These creatures – the Ediacaran biota – were first discovered in 1946 by geologist Reg Sprigg, just 20 kilometres north in the Ediacara Hills. They give us an undisturbed snapshot of a world of evolutionary experimentation; the Ediacarans (pronounced ed-e-ack-rans) had weird body shapes and no spines or eyes or mouths, but some are distantly our ancestors.
“What we see is really the dawn of animal life as we think of it today,” says Droser, who has spent the past 20 winters at the Nilpena site, uncovering thousands of individual fossils.
The fossils at Nilpena are “incredibly valuable”, says Professor Alan Collins, a geologist at the University of Adelaide.
“This is the best example of these Ediacaran fossils anywhere in the world, really,” he says. “They’re pretty much as far back as you can get and see something you at least might recognise as an animal, and have at least some similarities that link right the way through to humans.”
In recognition of their importance, the South Australian government has just announced that the fossils are protected as part of the Nilpena Ediacara National Park.
Once opened in early 2022, the park will provide an opportunity for people to take a bumpy 4WD track out to this hillside to see these life-founding fossils for themselves. SA’s Department of Environment and Water (DEW) is currently building trails, carparks, signage and viewing platforms, as well creating a visitor centre at Nilpena’s heritage-listed blacksmith’s shop, near the homestead.
The centre will house one of the most stunning fossil beds, called Alice’s Restaurant (because it’s littered with a whole community of fossils – riffing off the Arlo Guthrie song: “you can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant”). It will be brought to life by an interpretative display with audiovisual reconstructions of what these organisms looked and behaved like, which will allow people who can’t access the hillside excavation site to experience this prehistoric world.
According to Mary Lou Simpson, co-founder of the Flinders Ranges Ediacara Foundation which was instrumental in getting the national park declared, it’s incredibly important for the public to see this slice of natural history, because it touches on one of humanity’s biggest philosophical questions – where did we come from?
“If you’re told that you’re looking at something that was created 550 million years ago and you’re actually sitting in a shallow sea, I think you can get transported back to that time,” Simpson says.
After years of collaboration and effort, the foundation – along with the SA government, the Wyss Foundation and the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife – finally bought two-thirds of Nilpena Station’s 87,000 hectares. This land has been added to the much-smaller Ediacara Conservation Park, and the combined parcel was declared a national park last month.
This move was partly motivated by a desire to protect the fossils.
“We’ve got all the fossiliferous hills – everything that could possibly contain any fossils at all [in the new park],” says Jason Irving, manager of DEW’s National Parks and Protected Area Program.
He explains that many of the fossils discovered by Sprigg were moved off-site through the latter half of the 20th century, mainly by palaeontologists who would take specimens back to labs and museums to study.
But protection is also needed from potential thieves.
“There is a market for poached or looted fossils,” says Associate Professor Diego Garcia-Bellido, a palaeobiologist at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum. “If somebody stole those fossils, they would be fetching huge quantities – thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars out in the market, and that’s something we want to avoid.”
Nilpena’s never been hit by fossil poachers, but that’s not the case elsewhere – fossils taken from across the Flinders Ranges have ended up on the black market overseas. A specimen from Bunyeroo Gorge, just 60 km south, for example, was being offered for sale in Tokyo in 1994 for $330,000.
Irving notes that the SA national parks service also wants to protect the fossils from visitors with less criminal – but unwittingly destructive – motivations: “The visitors who go, ‘I’ll just take one’. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
The new national park will allow access to the fossils and also provide them with a higher degree of protection through controlled-visitation measures.
A security gate and cameras are already in operation, and more cameras will be added to the hillside site. Irving explains that a park ranger will be employed and only a handful of accredited operators will run tours of the park. “You won’t just be able to drive [in] – you won’t get past the gate without a guide,” he says.
Irving adds that DEW is still in the process of developing the system for how tours will run and how prices will be set.
Until the park is open, Nilpena Station’s previous owner, Ross Fargher, will continue to operate small tours as he has done for many years. Fargher will also remain on as the interim caretaker and will continue to be consulted on the park’s management.
According to Simpson, Ross and Jane Fargher “have been absolutely fantastic custodians of the site. They understand how important [the fossils] are. They were running private tours and Ross is absolutely fantastic on delivering a very good interpretation of the fossils.”
After the couple bought Nilpena in 1983, it didn’t take long for them to realise the place was a window into the past.
Fargher explains that a geology-savvy friend noticed the rippled slabs of rock paving the floor of the old shearing shed, and told him the slab could contain fossils.
“So I said, ‘We won’t bother flipping any of these over to see if there’s any fossils – we’ll go up to where I’ve seen a lot of them on the hills when I’ve been mustering’,” he says.
“It was still a surprise, though, to find this new area of fossils so close to homestead, when you think that people have been moving across that country for all those years.”
The Farghers have protected the fossils since their discovery, working closely with palaeontologists to ensure the specimens are only studied on-site, and with DEW to see the property become a national park.
“We were just concerned that if we weren’t about, the next people [who came along] and bought the property may not be interested at all in the preservation of the fossils,” Fargher says.
The park will allow a greater capacity for visitors – numbers are still to be confirmed, but likely up to five or so small tour groups of 15 every day – so what exactly will they be able to see?
Groups will go to the visitor’s centre and old woolshed, then be driven to one particular hillside, where they’ll be able to amble along tracks to viewing platforms to see half a dozen fossil beds.
The beds are part of an ancient seafloor; they were formed when storms deposited sediment that rapidly buried entire Ediacaran communities in sand, which was subsequently compressed into sandstone. The Ediacarans’ soft bodies quickly decayed but left the impressions of their forms in the rock, showing how whole assemblages of creatures lived and interacted.
Some of the beds are huge continuous slabs, while others are in pieces that were painstakingly slotted back together like a jigsaw puzzle. Both types display a huge diversity of creatures.
“Some of them are tiny, some of them are enormous,” Simpson says. “Most of them are the size of a twenty-cent piece, but then occasionally you get these giant ones.”
Some Dickinsonia specimens, for example, are more than a metre in diameter.
Visitors will have to use their imagination to envision how these creatures looked and behaved, adds Droser, who says she often dreams of being able to snorkel this ancient sea.
She and her team have had countless conversations over the years about what the creatures would have looked like: fields of upright tubular animals called Funisia; pancake-flat Dickensonia crawling over microbial mats to feed; tiny worm-like Ikaria burrowing down into the seafloor; the first creature to potentially swim in the water column, Attenborites; frond-like Arborea; limpet-shaped Kimberella; and dozens more species.
Other areas of the park hold even more fossils – there are another 40 or so known sites – but these will be reserved for scientists.
And Garcia-Bellido believes there are still more fossils waiting to be discovered. “About a month ago we went off to a different area of the park… and that has produced three new beds that we didn’t know of,” he says.
He explains that these discoveries are slowly filling in the plot holes in the story of evolution, like finding pages of a book: “As you start to collect as many of those pages [as you can], that will give you a much better idea of what the whole novel is telling you.”
And part of this story reaches back further than the Ediacaran fossils – the nearby Flinders Ranges also preserves geology that predates the rise of complex life, when Earth underwent massive climatic shifts, including ice ages that froze the entire planet.
“Australia is the only place on the planet that still has that complete, or almost complete, history of the 300 million years leading to the appearance of animals,” Garcia-Bellido says.
While some other places in the world also have excellent preservation of the fossils or geology of these crucial periods, the sites are often separated by hundreds or thousands of kilometres. But you can basically walk through Garcia-Bellido’s notional history book along the spine of the Flinders Ranges.
“There is nowhere in the world you can do that as well as you can here, and certainly nowhere in the world you can do it as accessibly as in South Australia,” Collins says.
This is the reason why the SA government is gunning to get the Flinders Ranges listed as a World Heritage site; it currently has tentative listing from UNESCO as the state prepares a full bid.
This new national park is the key piece behind the bid, Collins says – “it’s the jewel in the crown”.
Lauren Fuge is a science journalist at Cosmos. She holds a BSc in physics from the University of Adelaide and a BA in English and creative writing from Flinders University.