an illustration of animals and fossils that are found in Nilpena Ediacara National Park in Australia
Life in Nilpena (Animals, top to bottom) budgerigar, Eyre Basin beaked gecko, white-winged fairywren, Butler’s legless lizard, and painted dragon; (plants, top to bottom) Sturt’s desert pea, long-spined poverty bush and mulga acacia. © Zoe Keller
Magazine Articles

A Park for the Past

The new Nilpena Ediacara National Park in South Australia preserves wild evolutionary history and a rich desert landscape.

Text by Justine Hausheer | Illustrations by Zoe Keller | Issue 1, 2024

Three-quarters of a century ago, geologist Reginald Sprigg found an odd-shaped imprint in the rocks of the Ediacara Hills. Located six hours north of Adelaide, South Australia, the area is a landscape that anyone but a geologist would describe as barren: crumbling, iron-stained earth, scrubby vegetation and a summer heat that melts the asphalt. The strange fossil he discovered was shaped like a pancake and ribbed like a palm frond—an imprint of some long-ago creature laid down in the sand.

Sprigg didn’t know it then, but he’d just discovered what was—at that time—the earliest fossil evidence of complex, multicellular animal life on Earth. The landscape of low hills surrounding his find would later lend its name to a newly discovered geologic period—the Ediacaran—and the fossils within would prove an inflection point in our understanding of how life evolved on our planet.

Today, the site is known as Nilpena Ediacara National Park. In 2020, with the assistance of The Nature Conservancy, the South Australian government acquired a vast swath of the area from its previous private landowner. The park protects not only the area’s fossil treasures but also threatened woodland habitats, endangered wildlife and Aboriginal cultural heritage sites. It’s a place where the biodiversity of the past and present meet, where kangaroos and bearded dragons sun themselves atop fossils of their earliest ancestors.

A woman stands on a mountain peak in an arid landscape.
On Top, Down Under A woman watches sunrise on St Mary Peak, the highest point in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park in South Australia. Nilpena Ediacaran Park is within the Flinders Ranges region. © Andrew Peacock/Tandem Stock

“This place captures the dawn of animal life—the initial diversification of animals, of things that move and reproduce in different ways,” says Mary Droser, a paleontologist at the University of California Riverside who has studied fossils at Nilpena for more than 20 years. “It’s an extraordinary place, and it doesn’t matter that the organisms are half a billion years old.”

Droser explains that, for a portion of the Ediacaran Period between 635 to 541 million years ago, this section of Australian outback was shallow sea, where Earth’s earliest animals scuttled across a mat of organic scum that built up on the ocean floor. Occasionally, a storm would blow over the sea, washing in sediments that would settle to deposit a layer of fresh sand and smother many creatures in place. For paleontologists, that layering of microbial mat and fresh sand is what makes Nilpena such an extraordinary fossil site.

“The organic mat works as a separator between the storms, like when you buy steaks and there’s that paper between them that makes it easy to pull apart,” says Droser. “We’ve excavated these beds, turned them over and reconstructed large swaths of seafloor that are literal snapshots of the Ediacaran Sea.”

A timeline of life on Earth highlights the Ediacaran period.
Evolution's Giant Leap Less than 100 million years long, the Ediacaran Period is relatively short compared with Earth’s geological history, but it was a critical time for evolution. Before it, the planet was inhabited only by simple life-forms like microbiota and algae. During the Ediacaran Period, plants and animals began developing the basic bodily structures that underpinned the Cambrian Period and, eventually, life today. © Zoe Keller

Droser and her team have discovered more than a dozen new genera in Nilpena’s rocks. Over the years, Nilpena has revealed the raisin-shaped Attenborites (named for Sir David Attenborough) and Obamus coronatus, a small, round fossil that looks like a braided pastry and is named for the former U.S. president. “A lot of our discoveries happen because we’re on our hands and knees and we’re like, ‘What the heck is this?’”

Nilpena is one of a handful of prolific Ediacaran sites in the world, and the only one where paleontologists have excavated whole beds. That allows Droser to reconstruct the lost ecosystem and investigate a host of questions that paleontologists are rarely able to study, particularly how these early life-forms may have interacted with one another.

To help answer those questions, the paleontologists use a combination of mapping and imagery techniques, including laser scanning and photogrammetry, to digitize the fossil seafloor. They take the data with them for further study in California, leaving the fossils where they found them.

“We can ask very different questions and get a really deep insight at Nilpena,” says Droser. “We have the oldest bilaterian [in the research record],” she says, referring to the symmetrical body plan shared by essentially all modern animal life, except corals and sponges. Within these rocks, they’ve found the earliest evidence of animal mobility, scavenging behavior and even sexual reproduction—finds that are contributing to what scientists know about the history of life on Earth.

A Different World This map estimates what Earth looked like during the Ediacaran Period, 600 million years ago. The area that is now Nilpena Ediacara National Park was mostly a shallow seabed located north of the Equator. At that time, life likely only existed underwater. Just a handful of archaeological sites around the world have fossils from this period. © 5W Infographics

Perhaps almost as wondrous is that these fossils have survived all this time. For more than 150 years, Nilpena has been the site of working sheep and cattle stations (the term for a ranch in Australia). But its most recent owners, Ross and Jane Fargher, appreciated the land’s biological and paleontological heritage and took care not to overgraze their lands. 

In an interview with Science, Ross Fargher said that he first noticed some unusual rocks on his property in the mid-1980s, when a visitor pointed out the wavelike ripple rock that made up the floor of his 100-year-old woolshed. Soon, paleontologists and looters were carting loads of rock back to Adelaide. “Alarm bells started to go off,” he told Science, describing how sites in both Nilpena and the Ediacara Hills were “pretty well stripped bare.” Fargher agreed to allow research on his property, but only if scientists left the fossils where they found them, keeping Nilpena’s rich paleontological heritage in place. 

In January 2020, TNC helped the South Australian government purchase almost 150,000 acres of the 211,000-acre Nilpena Station with funding provided by The Wyss Foundation, a campaign of the Swiss philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss. The new Nilpena Ediacara National Park, which opened to the public in April 2023, protects the site’s extraordinary fossils while also adding critical ecosystems to the country’s collection of protected areas—a step toward hitting the country’s conservation targets. 

Sunlight casts light and shadow on a desert mountain range.
First Light The sun rises over Wilpena Pound in the scenic Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, located to the east of Nilpena Ediacara National Park in South Australia. © Juergen Freund/Nature Picture Library

Australia committed to following the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, an international agreement to reverse the loss of wildlife and habitat. A key part of the agreement is the “30x30” target, which asks nations to conserve at least 30% of their lands and oceans by 2030. Australia currently has about 22% of its land under protection, says James Fitzsimons, the senior advisor to global protection strategies for TNC. But, he says, 29 of the country’s 89 bioregions have less than 10% of their area protected.

“A key element of 30x30 is ensuring the protected-area network is ‘ecologically representative,’” says Fitzsimons. “That means ensuring the full range of ecosystems and habitat types are included and emphasizing areas of particular importance for biodiversity.” The creation of this national park boosts protection for Australia’s Gawler bioregion, which has vast salt lakes, spinifex grasslands, and rocky hills and plains interspersed with arid woodlands.


Within these rocks, they’ve found the earliest evidence of animal mobility, scavenging behavior and even sexual reproduction.

An illustration of a zebra finch perched on a fossil.
Then and Now Zebra finch and Yorgia waggoneri fossil. © Zoe Keller

Home to several species at risk of extinction, including the endangered thick-billed grasswren, the parkland also includes two threatened ecological communities within it: river red gum woodlands and mulga low woodlands. “Both provide habitat for a variety of animal species. Insects, and insectivorous bird species, are attracted to the small flowering shrubs,” says Jason Irving, director for National Parks Programs at the Department for Environment and Water in South Australia. “Raptors such as wedge-tailed eagles make their nests in the larger trees. Small mammals such as fat-tailed dunnarts can use shrubs as habitat, hunting insects by night.” And old-growth river red gum trees are especially critical for wildlife, as their hollow branches and trunks provide shelter and nesting sites for species like parrots, lizards and small mammals.

a map shows the new Nilpena Ediacara National Park with the Ikara-Flinders mountain range running through it.
New Connections The new Nilpena Ediacara National Park solidifies an important conservation corridor between a salt lake and nearby mountain ranges. The Nature Conservancy helped facilitate the purchase of this unique property. © 5W Infographics

The park also protects cultural heritage sites of the Adnyamathanha people, the Traditional Owners of the land who camped near permanent springs, leaving behind ash and charcoal middens that can still be seen thousands of years later. The South Australian government is partnering with the Adnyamathanha to help protect heritage sites and incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into park management.

Nilpena was the first of several land purchases facilitated by TNC in Australia in recent years. Other recent deals have protected savannah woodlands on Cape York Peninsula and nationally significant wetlands in New South Wales. A key part of TNC’s protection strategy in Australia, says Fitzsimons, is the organization’s flexibility. Rather than purchasing the land outright, TNC works with nonprofit organizations, Indigenous groups and state governments to create new protected areas under a variety of different mechanisms. To date, the organization has assisted in the protection of around 50 million acres—a collective area roughly the size of South Dakota or Nebraska.

For Nilpena, now one year into becoming a national park, the efforts to conserve the area have just begun. The land sits within the Flinders Ranges region—home to the most renowned mountain range in South Australia—which is currently being considered for UNESCO World Heritage status. The mountains, about 45 minutes due east of the new park, are one of Australia’s iconic landscapes and home to vulnerable species like the yellow-footed rock-wallaby and western quoll.

People in sun hats bend over a slab of ground in a desert landscape studying fossils.
Digging Into the Past Researchers in 2015 examine fossils at what is now Nilpena Ediacara National Park. This area has revealed fossils of many life-forms found nowhere else. © Government of South Australia Department for Environment and Water

“Creating the Nilpena Ediacara National Park means we can manage the fossil sites to ensure security and management regimes are put in place, while providing for controlled visitor access and ongoing research,” says Irving.  “This will enable the potential World Heritage values to be protected in perpetuity and shared with the world.”

Droser and her team still return to Nilpena each year, crawling across the ancient seafloor to map each and every blob or squiggle on the sandstone. “People ask me, ‘Why is this place important?’ It’s about understanding that the Earth has a history, and that there are organisms that went extinct because of past environmental change,” she says. “It’s because we have to understand the fate of past life on Earth to better understand our future.”

About the Creators

Justine Hausheer is a writer and editor for The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog. She lives near Brisbane, Australia.

Zoe Keller is a New York-based nature artist whose illustrations highlight biodiversity at risk with an aim to inspire reverence for the natural world