A Family of Explorers in Search of Some of Earth’s Oldest Fossils

After a week’s worth of preparation and a day’s worth of traveling, my family and I have finally made it to Nilpena Station, a 950-square-kilometer cattle ranch located in the South Australian outback.

Coming from our home in Southern California to this remote station is no small event, requiring hearty attitudes and a willingness to operate on low levels of sleep. It is an annual pilgrimage however that my mother, brother, and I have been enthusiastically making for 16 years. We come here for the fossils in the hills—fossils that tell the story of one of the most mysterious eras in paleontology: the Ediacaran period, the time when animal life unfolded.

In It Together

My mother, Dr. Mary Droser, is a paleontologist who has spent her career studying the 550-million-year-old fossils found on these hills. This period directly predates the Cambrian Explosion, 540 million years ago, during which life on Earth diversified greatly. In the hills of Nilpena Station, the fossilized Ediacaran biota is preserved in abundance on the bottom of rippled beds of sandstone. These soft-bodied, seafloor-dwelling creatures are Earth’s oldest complex animal life. Ranging from worm-like animals that moved slowly across the shallow seafloor to six-foot-tall frondose organisms waving in the water column, we’re learning through continued research the sheer extent of the complexity and diversity of these animals and their ecosystems.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has been taking my brother Ian and me to this station in the outback during our summer and Australia’s winter. As we’ve gotten older, the two of us have been helping increasingly in the research, gridding and mapping the fossil beds, excavating, and searching for stray pieces of fossiliferous rock on the hillside, which we call “float.” The work is long and hard, but worth it.

Working to expose rock surfaces in our excavation pit. Photo by Emily Hughes

Kangaroo Clean-Up Day

The first day back after many months away from the station is one of the busiest of the field season. The fossil beds here are unaffected by erosion in the short-term, and because leaving them out also helps to clean them, we leave them uncovered on the hillside during the months away. Keeping the fossils on location is also the best way to ensure pieces don’t go missing, and since these pieces of rock sometimes weigh upwards of 200 pounds, removing them from the site proves to be an extremely arduous process. Thus the hillside is the home of dozens of laid-out fossil beds in addition to paths lined with rocks that direct visitors where to step and stand.

It is because of this that when we return to the site after months away, one of the first things we are confronted with is kangaroo poop. Apparently, the beds of rock are a preferred location for passing kangaroos in need of a rest area. So on the first day back, we often find ourselves brushing away the pellets that have accumulated over. It’s not an enjoyable task (needless to say), but a necessary one. Yesterday was no exception.


Ian holds a newly discovered spiny-tailed lizard. Photo by Ian Hughes

Quite a Commute

The house we stay in—called “The Shearers’ Quarters” after the sheep shearers who stayed here decades ago—has a dirt road leading to the field, which also requires some cleaning up at the start of the season. Although we have been driving the road for years, we often return to find large rocks have fallen in the ways of the tire tracks, or parts of the road are slightly washed out. This makes the first drive up the field a bit of an adventure (even more than it usually is).

This year, as we gingerly drove the new rented Mitsubishi up the side of the mountain, we looked for any rocks that might prove to be a problem for the wheels. In addition to rocks, we also found some friendly roos, including a joey, waiting for us. We waved “hi” before climbing the rest of the way to the site.

We also often find that reptiles have settled down at the research site in our absence, as the beds of rock on the ground provide ample dark spaces for lizards and snakes to hide in.

A gecko hangs out with a Dickinsonia, one of the many fossils found on Nilpena’s beds. Photo by Ian Hughes

This year, we discovered an entire family of spiny-tailed lizards living beneath a bed of rock we call “Fat Bed.” Rather than kicking them out, we preferred to let them live under the beds of rock, as they rarely get in the way of the research. We do much prefer lizards to snakes, however, and this year, luckily, we haven’t come upon any snakes yet.

In addition to dealing with the local animals, we spent yesterday brushing off the dust that had accumulated on many of the beds, re-gridding the lines that divide the site into square meters, and shoveling out the excavation pits from which we remove the beds of rock that we study. Only stopping during breaks for lunch and tea, the team worked from sun-up to sun-down.

After a day of preparation and getting settled we’re looking forward to the field season ahead, during which we’ll conduct the exciting research that keeps us coming back again and again.

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.