The World’s Newest National Park Protects 550-Million-Year-Old Fossils

The 148,000-acre Nilpena Ediacara National Park in South Australia is helping scientists unravel the mysteries of life’s evolution on Earth

Fossil in red rock
One of the many Edicaran biota fossils within the bounds of Nilpena Ediacara National Park, which is now open in South Australia. National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia

The world’s newest national park is full of fossils—some dating back 550 million years—that help tell the story of how life evolved on Earth.

Australia’s Nilpena Ediacara National Park, located in the state of South Australia, opened to the public on Thursday. Situated roughly 300 miles north of Adelaide, the protected area spans 148,000 acres among the mountainous Flinders Ranges.

Today, much of the country’s vast landscape is parched and sun-beaten—it’s so arid that Australia is considered the driest inhabited continent in the world. But a shallow sea once covered the continent, providing a habitat for soft-bodied creatures—ranging from less than an inch to a few feet in length—that scientists believe bridged the gap between tiny single-celled organisms and larger hard-bodied creatures.

Collectively, these multicellular middle-man organisms are known as the Edicaran biota. Their fossilized remains are plentiful inside the bounds of the new national park, where paleontologists are hard at work to carefully unearth and examine them. Edicaran biota—which so far have been found on five continents—represent “an important development in the evolution of life on Earth, because they immediately predate the explosion of life forms at the beginning of the Cambrian Period 541 million years ago,” per Encyclopedia Britannica.

From studying the South Australia fossils over the last 30 years, scientists have gleaned valuable insights into the organisms’ “reproduction, competition, whether they moved, population structure and how they grew,” which collectively have helped bolster our understanding of animal evolution, as Nilpena’s lead scientist Mary Droser, a geologist at the University of California, Riverside, tells National Geographic’s Chloe Berge.

Under the unique conditions at Nilpena, paleontologists have perfected a new method for analyzing fossils: Instead of removing sections of rock and bringing them back to a lab, as has historically been the norm, researchers in South Australia simply unearth sections of fossil beds, piece them together and study them in the field. This strategy “is like snorkeling around on the ancient sea floor, instead of looking at a single animal in a fish tank,” says Droser in a statement.

Australian geologist Reg Sprigg made the first recorded discovery of the fossils in 1946, though as Johanna Read writes for Forbes, “the oral histories of the Adnyamathanha People show that the fossils have been known for far longer.” Later, in the 1980s, ranchers Ross and Jane Fargher found even more fossils at the site—and spent more than three decades protecting them, leading tours and facilitating research missions. In March 2019, the pair sold much of the property to the South Australia government to facilitate long-term protection and preservation, as Science’s Elizabeth Finkel reported.

World Heritage for the Flinders Ranges

“This is a journey 550 million years in the making, a region that has attracted significant international attention,” says Susan Close, South Australia’s deputy premier and environment minister, to the Australian Associated Press’ Tim Dornin. “This is not only a place of amazement but a place of learning.”

The state government is currently vying for a Unesco World Heritage site designation for the broader Flinders Ranges area, and the addition of Nilpena Ediacara National Park strengthens its bid. The site, which hosts traditional ceremonial grounds, is culturally significant to the Adnyamathanha people, and it is a piece of South Australia’s pastoral history. Plus, the region is the only place on the planet where scientists can observe a near-continuous geological record spanning 350 million years.

For now, travelers who wish to explore the park must do so by booking a guided tour. Along the way, they’ll be able to stop at a new immersive, audio-visual exhibition about the fossils, located inside a former blacksmith shop. While there, they can also see Alice’s Restaurant Bed, which the South Australia government describes as the most significant fossil bed in the park.

Discovered in 2016, the bed “contains many rare species, with evidence depicting the seafloor was once a habitat and complex environment where there was activity of mobility, feeding and reproduction,” per the national park. It’s since been relocated to the blacksmith shop’s exhibition space to give travelers an up-close-and-personal view of the fossils.

Of course, Alice’s Restaurant is just one of the 40 or so fossil beds paleontologists have discovered at the site, which has been a “mind-blowing” treasure trove of evolutionary history, as Cecilia Woolford, who leads the community group supporting the World Heritage nomination, told SALIFE magazine’s Kate Hill last summer.

“There are just beds and beds of it—that’s what makes this site so unique,” she adds to the publication. “We can show a chronological timeline of the dawn of animal life. That’s quite a statement.”

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