Origins of complex life on Earth first recognised in South Australia: new state fossil emblem announced

14 February 2017


South Australians see eye-to-eye with leading naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough, having just selected one of the first animals to ever exist on Earth, Spriggina, as their state’s new fossil emblem.

Spriggina, first discovered by a citizen scientist in South Australia’s outback, was chosen through a two month voting process, during which 3,571 South Australians had their say. The 555 million (approx.) year old fossil, which is only found in South Australia, best represents the state’s globally recognised geological and scientific prowess.

On hearing of Spriggina’s selection as the South Australian state fossil emblem, Sir David said that Spriggina, which appeared in his Life on Earth series, is a very fitting state fossil emblem for South Australia.

“Its head and segmented body suggest that it may well have had a rudimentary brain, making it, perhaps, the earliest evidence of intelligent life in the history of our planet,” said Sir David.

Prof. Jim Gehling, one of the world’s leading Ediacara researchers, Senior Research Scientist at the South Australian Museum and recently appointed Order of Australia, took Sir David to explore the Ediacara Hills in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia in 2009, and gave him a behind-the-scenes-tour of the South Australian Museum’s Ediacara fossil collection in 2013.

“Since Sir David’s first visit the South Australian Museum’s collection of Spriggina fossils has grown from just ten in 2011, to around 300 in 2017,” said Prof. Gehling.

“Scientists from around the globe visit the South Australian Museum so that they can access the Museum’s Ediacara collection and research expertise,” he said.

However, it wasn’t always this way.

“When Dr Reg Sprigg AO, a young Mines Department geologist, made the first discovery of fossils in the Ediacara Hills of the Flinders Ranges of South Australia few geologists believed that he had found anything significant,” said Prof. Gehling.

“Most scientists thought that only organisms with hard parts, such as shells or skeletons, could be preserved in the fossil record.

“It took school teacher Hans Mincham (later, the first South Australian Museum Information Officer) and carpenter Ben Flounders to find the first known Ediacara specimens of Spriggina, Parvancorina and Tribrachidium in the Ediacara Hills to make the global scientific community open their minds,” said Prof Gehling.

Mr Flounders’s daughter, Dianne Brewster said that Spriggina was discovered by chance on a warm day in the Flinders Ranges.

“Before it got too hot dad decided to go looking around a bit,” said Mrs Brewster.

“As he was climbing a cliff area the light came over a ridge to the east, causing the fossil to cast a shadow and catch dad’s eye.

“He took a deep breath and got out his tools, then proceeded to chip slowly away,” said Mrs Brewster.

Prof. Gehling said that this discovery, by a citizen scientist, marked a turning point in our understanding of early animal evolution.

“Reg Sprigg, Hans Mincham and Ben Flounders had undying curiosity about life on Earth,” he said.

“Their passion has inspired new generations of scientists and the public to explore evolution, and unveiled South Australia as a treasure trove of ancient fossils that help us understand how life has evolved on Earth,” said Prof. Gehling.