Saving fossil hill

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Science  29 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6434, pp. 1382-1385
DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6434.1382

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The prized assets of the remote Nilpena cattle station in Townsville, Australia, aren't actually cattle: They're fossils, the weird forms of Earth's first multicellular creatures, which lie exposed and motionless on the hillside like some open-air diorama. Frozen in rock for 560 million years, about 60 species from the Ediacaran period pattern the rocks, the richest collection of such forms on Earth. Some creatures exhibit bilateral symmetry, others the trifold symmetry of the Mercedes-Benz logo; still others resemble heraldic shields, or are leafy with a repeating, fractal structure. Almost alone among Ediacaran sites, Nilpena preserves entire communities of organisms, intact because of ancient accidents of preservation and the foresight of its modern landowner. This is the rare site where paleontologists can see ancient animals—for that is what many of the Ediacaran creatures appear to be—still in the context of their ecosystems. On 28 March, the state government of South Australia, using AU$2.2 million raised in a public-private partnership, will purchase about half of Nilpena station to add to the existing Ediacara Conservation Park, increasing its size more than 10-fold.

  • * Elizabeth Finkel is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.