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Ediacaran life on land



Ediacaran (635–542 million years ago) fossils have been regarded as early animal ancestors of the Cambrian evolutionary explosion of marine invertebrate phyla1, as giant marine protists2 and as lichenized fungi3. Recent documentation of palaeosols in the Ediacara Member of the Rawnsley Quartzite of South Australia4 confirms past interpretations of lagoonal–aeolian deposition based on synsedimentary ferruginization and loessic texture5,6. Further evidence for palaeosols comes from non-marine facies, dilation cracks, soil nodules, sand crystals, stable isotopic data and mass balance geochemistry4. Here I show that the uppermost surfaces of the palaeosols have a variety of fossils in growth position, including Charniodiscus, Dickinsonia, Hallidaya, Parvancorina, Phyllozoon, Praecambridium, Rugoconites, Tribrachidium and ‘old-elephant skin’ (ichnogenus Rivularites7). These fossils were preserved as ferruginous impressions, like plant fossils8, and biological soil crusts9,10 of Phanerozoic eon sandy palaeosols. Sand crystals after gypsum11 and nodules of carbonate12 are shallow within the palaeosols4, even after correcting for burial compaction13. Periglacial involutions and modest geochemical differentiation of the palaeosols are evidence of a dry, cold temperate Ediacaran palaeoclimate in South Australia4. This new interpretation of some Ediacaran fossils as large sessile organisms of cool, dry soils, is compatible with observations that Ediacaran fossils were similar in appearance and preservation to lichens and other microbial colonies of biological soil crusts3, rather than marine animals1, or protists2.

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Figure 1: Geological section of upper Ediacara Member in Brachina Gorge, South Australia.
Figure 2: Palaeosols of the Ediacara Member of the Rawnsley Quartzite, South Australia.
Figure 3: Maximum length of Dickinsonia fossils related to area (%) of gypsum in same palaeosol, as a proxy for soil development.


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K. Lloyd, P. Coulthard, A. Coulthard, K. Anderson and D. Crawford facilitated permission to undertake research in Flinders Ranges National Park. B. Logan and M. Willison aided sampling of drill core at PIRSA, Glenside. T. Palmer and D. Atkins provided mathematical advice. Fieldwork was funded by the PRF fund of the American Chemical Society, and aided by C. Metzger and J. Gehling.

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Correspondence to Gregory J. Retallack.

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Retallack, G. Ediacaran life on land. Nature 493, 89–92 (2013).

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