The World's Newest National Park Just Opened With the Planet's Oldest Animal Fossils

Nilpe­na Ediacara National Park opened in South Australia on April 27.

Aerial view of Nilpe­na Ediacara National Park

Courtesy of Nilpena National Park

Australia is the flattest and driest inhabited continent on the planet, thanks in large part to the Outback, which covers most of the country. Yet, what many people don’t know is that much of the Outback was once an ocean floor — and it still hides the fossilized remains of the oldest animals on Earth. 

These ancient fossils, called Ediacara biota, are now protected as part of the new Nilpe­na Ediacara National Park, which opened to the public for the first time on Thursday, April 27. The park is already making waves for its fossil beds, which visitors can see up close, and the ongoing work by Mary L. Droser, an American paleontologist who unearthed one of the Nilpena’s most renowned fossil beds.

A fossils found in Nilpe­na Ediacara National Park

Courtesy of Nilpena National Park

“The fossils are about 550 million years old, which is well over half a billion years old,” explained Droser in an interview with Travel + Leisure. “With these beds, which basically are snapshots of the seafloor during that time (that is, fossils are preserved in place) — we have demonstrated the oldest animal sexual reproduction, the oldest macroscopic organism in the water column, the advent of mobility, and a number of other firsts.”

Aerial view of a group of people looking for fossils in Nilpe­na Ediacara National Park

Courtesy of Nilpena National Park

There are already almost 40 discovered fos­sil­ beds at Nilpe­na and the work is ongoing. Visitors to the park will be treated to a world-class fossil experience that includes guided tours to see the beds and fossil up close, and an audio-visual recreation that brings the ancient fossils to life. 

Due to the international significance of the findings at Nilpena and the ongoing work by Droser and her team, park visitors must book a guided tour to see the fossils. Ross Fargher, owner of the nearby Prairie Hotel, is currently the only tour operator who can run tours to the fossil site. This is significant because Fargher has played a personal role in the timeline of Nilpena. He stumbled upon several fossilized lifeforms in the ‘80s and bolstered the findings by Reg Sprigg, an Aus­tralian geol­o­gist who found the world’s most abundant Ediacara biota in the ‘40s.

Aerial view of the Ediacara Fossil Site in Nilpe­na Ediacara National Park

Courtesy of Nilpena National Park

Droser said that while the Ediacara biota have been found all over the world, the findings in South Australia are the best record of this suite of fossils, and Fargher’s findings are “significant because of the nature of preservation. It has allowed us to excavate sandstone beds covered with fossils. This is absolutely unique and has provided unprecedented insight into the early history of animal life on Earth.”

Droser is also part of a team preparing the nomination of the Flinders Ranges, where Nilpe­na Ediacara National Park is located, as a World Heritage Site

The entrance and sign to in Nilpe­na Ediacara National Park

Courtesy of Nilpena National Park

Nilpe­na Ediacara National Park is located in the Australian state of South Australia and is around six hours by car from Adelaide. Entry to the park is free, but guided tours must be booked in advance and start at $160.

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