NILPENA CATTLE STATION IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA—Fly over the cattle station here in a Cessna 172 and you’ll see a dry riverbed snaking through brown, mottled earth punctuated by the occasional patch of saltbush. There’s no sign of the 200 cattle currently being run on this property, which is about the size of New York City and sits 450 kilometers north of Adelaide, Australia. But cattle are not the main asset of this remote station.
Instead, Nilpena’s prize specimens lie exposed and motionless on the gentle slopes of Mt. Michael like some open-air diorama: the weird forms of Earth’s first multicellular creatures, frozen in rock for 560 million years. About 60 species from the Ediacaran period pattern the hillside, 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.
The plethora of species here isn’t the only thing that sets it apart. 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, a rancher named Ross Fargher.