Extramural Activities: Paint and Fossils

Emily Hughes brings us tales of adventure and discovery from the Australian Outback as she and her mother search for unbelievably ancient fossils. Her team digs up the creatures that form the evolutionary boundary between microorganism and animal—the Ediacaran biota. 

Every occupation in the world has hidden requirements left out of the job description. Sometimes doctors have to be therapists, poets have to be historians, and—perhaps surprisingly—paleontologists have to be muralists, trailblazers, and more.

In addition to the skills you’ve perhaps read about in earlier posts (map-making, photography, etc.), there are many abilities our team acquired and practiced over the course of this field season. One of them is building plinths: the method of properly stacking rocks (without fossils on them) and covering them with chain-link fencing. We lay beds of fossils on the plinths to keep the soil and dirt off of them, and so that visitors can better see them. Another skill is trailblazing; we have to make trails leading down to the work sites so we don’t trip over rocks every time we walk around. Another still is carrying water, because we have to get our drinking water from a huge container about 200 meters from our quarters that collects the rare substance during storms.

Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, is our mural-painting. One of the things my mom is passionate about is communicating science to the public, be it climate change, evolution or her beloved Ediacara fossils. So when Jane Fargher (one of the owners of the station we work on) suggested we could paint a mural depicting Ediacara fossils for the small town of Parachilna (population: three), of course we agreed.

The mural begins to take shape as the white of the blank wall slowly disappears... (Photo by Emily Hughes)
The mural begins to take shape as the white of the blank wall slowly disappears… (Photo by Emily Hughes)

Parachilna is home to the Prairie Hotel, of which Jane is the proprietor. Many people from around the world (including actors and actresses) go there for a getaway from society. Now, each and every one of them can see the mural painted by paleontologists, as well as yours truly.

Michelle Kroll, the fantastic artist aboard this mission who does fossil reconstructions for my mom and her colleague Jim Gehling, designed the mural, and then obtained the help of some of her non-artist paleontology teammates to draw and paint it. Forty-eight hours from the mural’s conception and after a full day and night of painting, it stood before us, gleaming in the evening light. I’m proud to say that the purple mountains were what I worked on the entire time.

Perhaps you’re wondering how an entire mural can be finished in 48 hours. It took a lot of hard work and perseverance. First we waited until it was dark outside, and then drove to Parachilna, where we projected Michelle’s design on the blank wall (powering the projector from the car—my mom’s contribution was keeping her foot on the accelerator to keep the battery alive!). Then, about seven people used Sharpies and drew the outlines of each fossil, character or letter on to the wall. If the projector moved even a millimeter, the lines would be messed up, so we had to freehand a little and we were very careful.

Here's me, working away at tracing this frond onto the blank wall, with the design projected onto it. (Photo by Kelly Barnes of The Australian)
Here’s me, working away at tracing this frond onto the blank wall, with the design projected on it. (Photo by Kelly Barnes of The Australian)

The next morning, the not-as-necessary-in-the-field members such as my 14-year-old brother and I stayed to help out.

We spent the entire day painting non-stop, so that by the time the sun went down, we were basically done, and the mural looked magical.

Ediacara fossils as well as the Flinders Ranges are captured in this hand-painted mural. (Photo by Scott Evans)

We also currently have a fossil display set up in Parachilna, and a mural guide, so that any visitors can take a look at the amazing specimens upon which the mural is based.

This mural just goes to show that hard work and perseverance can really pay off, and if you have a good attitude, determination, and the right song playlist you can accomplish anything. Plus, there are a lot of blank walls standing around all over the world. The next time you see one, maybe you can give it a colorful scientific or natural mural, too.

PS—There are other blank walls in Parachilna, and there’s going to be a competition for school kids to design an Ediacara mural, come up to the Prairie Hotel, and paint. So stay tuned!

Read More by Emily Hughes

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Emily Hughes is an undergraduate student at Wesleyan University, born and bred in Riverside, California. She has spent the majority of her summers exploring the Australian Outback, and finding, recording, analyzing and generally admiring the 560-million year old Ediacara fossils preserved there. She is a prospective double major in English and Earth and Environmental Science, and she works for the student newspaper as well as the sustainability office.