The Nilpena story

On the west­ern mar­gins of the Flinders Ranges lies Nilpe­na, the sin­gle most impor­tant site on the plan­et for the Edi­acaran rise of ear­ly ani­mal life. In Nilpena’s unas­sum­ing hills, an ancient seafloor con­tain­ing strange ear­ly life­forms some half a bil­lion years old have been exquis­ite­ly pre­served in the fine sand­stone grain.

Nilpe­na is now recog­nised as the rich­est and most diverse Edi­acaran fos­sil site on Earth, and has rev­o­lu­tionised our under­stand­ing of this remark­able time in Earth’s his­to­ry. Nilpe­na has a diver­si­ty of over 40 species record­ed in the sed­i­ments of its ancient seafloors, and palaeon­tol­o­gists are reveal­ing fas­ci­nat­ing evi­dence about how these strange and cryp­tic ear­ly crea­tures lived, repro­duced, and even hunted.

Nilpena’s sig­nif­i­cance is inte­gral to the bid for World Her­itage for the Flinders Ranges and in April 2021, the Flinders Ranges was placed on Australia’s World Her­itage Ten­ta­tive List.

National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia

The dis­cov­ery

Edi­acaran fos­sils were famous­ly dis­cov­ered in the Edi­acara Hills by South Aus­tralian geol­o­gist Reg Sprigg 75 years ago. This dis­cov­ery was the first time the fos­silised remains of an entire com­mu­ni­ty of soft-bod­ied crea­tures had been found in such abun­dance any­where in the world. The dis­cov­ery was so sig­nif­i­cant that fos­sils were named after him and the Edi­acaran geo­log­i­cal peri­od was named after the loca­tion where the fos­sils were found.

Almost 40 years lat­er in the 1980’s, Ross Fargher lease­hold­er of Nilpe­na Pas­toral Sta­tion, found Edi­acaran fos­sils on his recent­ly-acquired prop­er­ty when a fam­i­ly friend noticed rip­ple rocks of the ancient sea floor used as the floor­ing of Nipena’s wool­shed. Here, south of Reg Sprigg’s orig­i­nal dis­cov­ery site, a rich array of ear­ly life­forms have now been iden­ti­fied, rep­re­sent­ing the dra­mat­ic ini­tial radi­a­tion of ani­mal life on Earth and the peak of the diver­si­ty of these unusu­al life­forms that exist­ed on Earth 560 – 542 mil­lion years ago. This loca­tion was placed on Australia’s Nation­al Her­itage List in 2007 for its qual­i­ty of intact fos­sil specimens.

One of Nilpena’s most superbly pre­served beds, known as Alice’s Restau­rant Bed, was unearthed in 2016 by lead­ing palaeon­tol­o­gist Dr Mary Dros­er and her team. 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. It also con­tains sev­er­al new­ly described taxa, includ­ing one named after Sir David Atten­bor­ough (Atten­bori­ties janeae) who vis­it­ed Nilpe­na to film part of the BBC Doc­u­men­tary First Life’.

Today, near­ly 40 fos­sil­if­er­ous beds have been revealed at Nilpe­na, rep­re­sent­ing mul­ti­ple envi­ron­ments and reveal­ing tens of thou­sands of extreme­ly well-pre­served and diverse Edi­acaran fos­sils. As an active research site, reg­u­lar field sea­sons by both the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side and the South Aus­tralian Muse­um con­tin­ue to expand our knowl­edge of this incred­i­bly sig­nif­i­cant peri­od in Earth­’s history.

National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia