Flinders Ranges

Date of Submission: 15/04/2021
Criteria: (viii)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment
State, Province or Region:
South Australia
Ref.: 6524

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


  1. Arkaroola Protection Area: 30°13’46.183”S 139°21’36.457”E
  2. Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park: 30°27’56.96”S 139°8’26.453”E
  3. Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park: 31°21’33.75”S 138°38’32.581”E
  4. Nilpena and Ediacara Conservation Park: 30°58’48.202”S 138°12’22.962”; 30°48’46.767”S 138°8’17.336”E
  5. Maynards Well: 30°32’23.4”S 138°42’41.5”E
  6. Ajax Hill: 30°40’11.475”S 138°26’25.643”E
  7. Angorichina: 31°5’35.999”S 138°53’46.189”E

The Flinders Ranges geological successions represent an extraordinary window into the major stage in Earth’s history described as the “dawn of animal life”. The sites in this serial property present a geological record of Earth’s wildly fluctuating climate conditions and environments over a period of 350 million years that evidences the special habitable conditions on Earth that gave rise to animal life. This succession captures this dynamic record that includes life from microbial stromatolites to early primitive multicellular life, to the advent of animals as exemplified by the remarkable Ediacara Biota. The evolution of skeletons, limbs, eyes, predation and vertical burrowing during the Cambrian radiation was the origin of many modern animal life forms on Earth today. The serial property is proposed to be nominated against criterion (viii).

The Flinders Ranges, part of the traditional lands of the Adnyamathanha People, is a semi-arid mountainous landscape located 500 kilometres north of Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. It is known for its outstanding aesthetic beauty, diverse landscapes and rich biodiversity, and exceptional scientific values. The South Australian Government works in partnership with the First Peoples of South Australia and supports their Nations to take a leading role in caring for their Country. The South Australian Government is working to engage with the Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners to build a partnership and obtain consent for a serial World Heritage nomination of seven geographic areas (component parts) of the Flinders Ranges. The Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park and Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park co-management boards are supportive of World Heritage recognition. Local communities, landowners, expert geologists and the Australian Government are providing support for the preparation of the nomination of seven geographic areas (component parts) of the Flinders Ranges.

The semi-arid landscape of the Flinders Ranges, with its limited vegetation cover, has ensured that geological successions are abundantly exposed and highly accessible for research. Additionally, moderate tectonic influences have presented these rocks as gently to steeply dipping strata, much like the pages in an ancient book. Geologists recognise that these rocks provide an exceptional record of a major stage in Earth’s history; literally, “Archive Earth”. These rocks provide an exceptional depositional, tectonic and geothermal record of Earth history in a subsiding geological basin known as the Adelaide Rift Complex (Counts, 2017), which straddled Australia’s ancient continental margin, and spanned a 350 million year time period from the Neoproterozoic (850 million years) to the Cambrian (500 million years). This is the critical geological time-frame when complex, macroscopic (multicellular) animal life first emerged on Earth.

The emergence and diversification of animal life was dependent on Earth’s changing climates and environments, which at times supported the emergence of animal life (habitable Earth conditions), and at other times, impacted and extinguished life. The remarkable archive of rock exposures in the Flinders Ranges record and present these dynamic environments in exceptional quality and clarity. At 672 million years, dramatic rock exposures at Tillite Gorge (Arkaroola Protection Area) present key outcrops that feature the Sturt glaciation, an intensely cold period of immense glaciation, which extended from the north pole to the south pole and has been described by some as “Snowball Earth” (Hoffman et al., 2017). At 650 million years, the geological successions record warmer interglacial conditions with an ancient barrier reef forming; outcropping rocks located in the Arkaroola Protection Area and Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park, represent one of the oldest such reefs in the world. There was another massive climate swing 640 million years ago to the colder conditions of the Elatina glaciation, yet another episode of Snowball Earth. Key exposures of this second global glacial event are preserved in the rock record outcropping in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park and Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park. The rise of animal life is broadly associated with a gradual warming through the Ediacaran to a warm greenhouse climate in the early Cambrian (Hearing et al., 2018) as the Australian-Antarctica sector of East Gondwana straddled the equator (Brock et al., 2000). The emergence of macroscopic animal life is preserved in these rocks.

What caused these wild climate swings? Volcanicity, its gas emissions and the interaction between volcanic rocks, the atmosphere and life forms, controlled the abundance of carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the atmosphere, resulting in fluctuating greenhouse and non-greenhouse conditions. While volcanic activity generally increased carbon dioxide levels over time, unicellular and photosynthetic cyanobacteria (prokaryotes) consumed it and generated oxygen as a waste product. These prokaryotic cells are not animals as they do not contain a distinct nucleus – but they are thought to be the first living organisms on Earth. Their activity diminished Earth’s greenhouse effect that kept the planet warm. Other living organisms with more complex cells, including a defined nucleus (eukaryotes), also contributed to the generation of atmospheric oxygen at this time. Habitable Earth conditions suitable for animal life were sometimes present, but often short-lived during these wild climate swings.

For this critical 350 million year major stage in Earth’s history, there is no other place on Earth where there is a near-continuous succession of highly accessible strata. The emergence of complex life is recorded in the Flinders Ranges rock sequences, in particular at three critical intervals. The oldest example of complex life is presented by the enigmatic “sponge-like” organisms from the deep-water settings at Arkaroola Reef; followed by the remarkable Ediacaran radiation event, the advent of new animal body plans revealed in the emergence of tens of genera identified at the Nilpena site and preserving the advent of mobility and scavenging; and finally the famous Cambrian explosion of animal life, the crucible for the emergence and diversification of most animal phyla alive today; and the intricate interactions (eg. biomineralization, predation, and burrowing) associated with this rise in ecological complexity.  All of these biotic milestones are remarkably well preserved in the Flinders Ranges.

The World Heritage narrative, the “dawn of animal life” is presented sequentially from the oldest Adelaide Rift Complex rocks (850 million years ago) to the youngest (500 million years ago). The basement rocks to the Adelaide Rift Complex are also described, and comprise unusual, radiogenic or naturally radioactive Mesoproterozoic granitic rocks (ca. 1,580 million years old) that give off radiogenic heat. This trapped heat below a great thickness of accumulating sediments is thought to have influenced the formation of the Adelaide Rift Complex through mini-tectonic episodes and associated diapiric intrusions.

The Flinders Ranges serial property: Evidence for the Flinders Ranges World Heritage narrative is sourced from 34 outstanding geological sites (elements) located in seven geographic areas (component parts) in the central and northern Flinders Ranges. When combined as a single narrative, these elements portray early Earth, its climates, early prokaryotic life, the emergence of complex megascopic animals, followed by a remarkable radiation of animal life during the early Cambrian.

Early Earth: Pre-Adelaide Rift Complex: The stratigraphic sequences of the Adelaide Rift Complex were deposited well after Earth was formed from gas and dust in the Archaean period about 4,560 million years ago. During the Archaean, plate tectonics had commenced, ocean basins formed, and the atmosphere was comprised of lethal volcanic gases that included carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and water vapour. It was a time when the earliest forms of life such as cyanobacteria (3,700 million years) had emerged, despite Earth’s hostile environment (Schopf, 2006). Consortia of bacteria and cyanobacteria formed laminated mats and domes called stromatolites, and through photosynthesis consumed carbon dioxide and produced oxygen as a waste product. Some scientists (Banerjee et al., 2020; Cole et al., 2020) believe the evolution of oxygen-producing cyanobacteria was the most significant event in the history of life, second only to the evolution of life itself. The presence of oxygen in the oceans and then the atmosphere changed the surface chemistry of Earth, significantly increased primary production, and vastly increased the possibility of biotic diversity. The Archaean Eon extended to 2,500 million years ago, when the Proterozoic Eon commenced.

Earth’s Proterozoic Eon (2,500 million years to 542 million years) includes part of the Flinders Ranges geological successions. Oxygen was being produced, an ozone layer developed that helped filter dangerous ultraviolet light, and opportunities for more complex life began to emerge. Near the beginning of the Neoproterozoic, the breaking apart of an ancient supercontinent known as Rodinia commenced, including rifting along the line of the proto-Flinders Ranges which witnessed an outpouring of basaltic lava some 830 million years ago. The rifting helped develop the Adelaide Rift Complex and the volcanic activity is recorded by one of the earliest geological sequences of the complex. Plate tectonics moved early Australia to near the equator where it and other continents helped to cool the Earth by reflecting tropical heat rather than the oceans absorbing it. This geological feature, the Flinders Ranges “Adelaide Rift Complex” hosts an essentially continuous 350 million year record of changing climates and depositional environments on Earth from 850 million years to 500 million years ago. It is a major stage in Earth’s history recognised as the “dawn of animal life”. Arguably, it preserves the most complete record of habitable Earth phenomena that primed our planet for animal life. There are other places on Earth that preserve some of these events as individual sites, but none are as extensive, comprehensive, interconnected, well exposed, and accessible as found in the Flinders Ranges.

Oldest basement rocks (“hot rocks”) (1,580 million years ago): The Adelaide Rift Complex is underlain by Mesoproterozoic metasedimentary and granitic basement rocks including the Mount Neill Granite (ca. 1,580 million years old). These igneous rocks are different to most on the planet. They are rich in unstable radioactive uranium minerals, which generate radiogenic heat as they decay. This in turn influences overlying sediments that trap the heat. The heat is thought by some researchers to have energized the vertical intrusive movements of sedimentary diapirs (vertical columnar plugs of less-dense rock that are forced through dense overlying rock). Over geological time, the intrusion of diapirs through younger overlying sediments is thought to have influenced the contemporary marine environment, thus increasing the diversity of marine habitats and providing a range of opportunities for animal life to evolve and flourish.

The oldest Adelaide Rift Complex rocks in the serial property are presented by the Arkaroola Protection Area, and include a remarkable suite of geological phenomena that owe their origin directly or indirectly to the ancient underlying Mesoproterozoic radiogenic “hot rocks”. The Arkaroola Protection Area also includes the presence of a granite body formed by the melting of Mesoproterozoic rocks overlain by an estimated 16 kilometre-thick sequence of Adelaide Rift Complex sediments, thus demonstrating the enormous energy associated with this trapped heat through geological time, and during the formation of the Adelaide Rift Complex (McLaren et al., 2006). The Mesoproterozoic radiogenic “hot rocks” also contributed to the formation of the unique Phanerozoic Eon fossil plumbing system at Mount Gee (Arkaroola Protection Area), a system that serviced an ancient and long-lived geothermal area (Hore et al., 2020) with geysers similar to those in Yellowstone National Park of the United States. It is known by some locally as the “crystal mountain” for its multiple interconnected cavities (vughs) lined with quartz crystals. The Paralana Hot Springs (Arkaroola Protection Area) is a modern-day remnant of this radiogenic heat-driven geothermal system (Brugger et al., 2005).

The oldest sedimentary rocks (850 million years) of the Adelaide Rift Complex in contact with the underlying Mesoproterozoic basement rocks are best presented at the Arkaroola Waterhole (850 million years); nearby outcrops include the basaltic volcanics (lava), the early evaporites, and evidence of the mobilisation of diapiric structures. Animal life on Earth needed suitable environmental conditions to evolve. Oxygen was a primary ingredient for the rise of complex animal life, which was facilitated by their photosynthesizing single-celled forbearers (stromatolites) that increased atmospheric oxygen levels. The sediments of the Flinders Ranges record this crucial period of time, when eukaryotes finally overtook the prokaryotic bacteria as the dominant form of life, and the most complex life on Earth. This was a significant step towards life as we know it today, and occurred after the “Snowball Earth” Sturt glaciation of 672 million years ago.

Sturt glaciation (672 million years ago): The Sturt glaciation was a spectacular ice age that affected most of Earth. Increased oxygen levels and decreased carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, a situation created by the life on Earth, led to a diminishment of Earth’s greenhouse gases and intense cooling as a result. The Adelaide Rift Complex was the original discovery site for the “Sturt glaciation”, which has become known as a global event (Cox et al., 2018). The Sturt Tillite, described as poorly sorted rocks and fine sediments deposited directly by a melting glacier, subsequently compacted and cemented to form a rock, is prevalent throughout the Flinders Ranges, and is a testament to the prevalence of the Sturt “ice age”. The Sturt Tillite that outcrops at “Tillite Gorge” in the Arkaroola Protection Area is the greatest thickness of Sturt glacial debris known on Earth (Mawson, 1949a). Associated ironstone deposits (620 million years ago) within the nearby Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park help identify the effects of increased oxygen levels during the Sturt glaciation. This major glaciation, which heralded the beginning of the “Cryogenian Period”, saw a long duration of intensely cold conditions with windows of warmer periods, or interglacial periods, between these. The most extreme of these, the Sturt glaciation, would influence Earth’s environmental conditions and lead to the evolution of animal life on Earth. It would provide an ecological stimulus, where vast amounts of nutrients flowed into the oceans with the melting of glaciers. It would consequently lead to increased atmospheric oxygen levels and provide ideal circumstances for eukaryotes to challenge bacteria and flourish.

Barrier reefs: Enigmatic life forms (650 million years ago): Following the Sturt glaciation, the Earth warmed and remarkable ancient barrier reefs were formed offshore by microorganisms at Arkaroola Reef (Kingsmill Creek Gorge) (Corkeron and Slezak, 2020; Wallace et al., 2015) and Oodnaminta Reef (Giddings et al., 2009; Wallace et al., 2015) together with the deposition of inorganic calcium carbonate. These ancient reefs, located in the Arkaroola Protection Area and Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park, were some of the earliest barrier reefs on Earth and included, in their deep water environments, enigmatic life-forms, interpreted to be early animals. The small chambered structures (potential spongeomorphs) were significantly older (90 million years) than the Ediacara biota. Although lacking the key characteristics of sponges that might enable confident assignment, they suggest pre-Ediacaran origination of nascent multicellular animal life. These early spongeomorphs lived in deeper marine settings than cyanobacteria, and reveal increasing biological complexity in the ancient oceans. These small-scale eukaryotic fossils are among the earliest evidence for the emergence of animal life on Earth.

The rifting that helped develop the Adelaide Rift Complex contributed to the formation of these reef complexes now recognised as the Cryogenian Balcanoona Formation of the northern Flinders Ranges. At the paleo-near-shore line, in an expanding sea separating opposing land masses by tens of kilometres, several dolomite platforms formed with well-defined back-reef, reef margin and slope/basinal facies. The subsidence of the sea floor relative to the sea-level enabled the shallow water forming reef to prograde more than 15 kilometres into the basin and eventually form over one kilometre of relief at the platform margin. Reefs formed on the western and eastern sides of the sea-filled rift valley. On the eastern side, the Arkaroola Reef and Oodnaminta Reef may have been part of a single large platform now dissected by the Paralana Fault. The Oodnaminta Reef displays the greatest depositional relief with formation of deepwater boundstone. A large proportion of deepwater boundstone suggests that these Cryogenian reefs were fundamentally different from younger Phanerozoic reefal systems. A community of anoxic-adapted non-photosynthetic organisms may have constructed the enigmatic deepwater boundstone (Wallace et al., 2015).

The post Sturt glaciation-interglacial period was also recognised by a rise in the diversity of complex unicellular life. This was in the form of cyanobacteria, which were integral for priming Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen. A rich record of stromatolites, featured as domed, digitate and laminated limestone reef structures (bioherms) were formed, as exemplified by Enorama Creek in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. Whilst the antiquity of stromatolites extends well back into the Archaean Eon (3,500 million years) as evidenced by the spectacular stromatolite build-ups in Western Australia’s Pilbara Region, the Flinders Ranges bioherms feature diverse species and beautifully laminated structures ranging from millimetres to kilometres in scale.

Elatina glaciation (635 million years ago): With life forms consuming atmospheric carbon dioxide and with the rise of oxygen, the greenhouse gases that maintained a warm Earth diminished. A second extreme global ice age event known as the Elatina glaciation emerged (Williams et al., 2008). Similar to the Sturt glacial event, evidence for the Elatina ice age was also first discovered in the Adelaide Rift Complex (Mawson, 1949b), within Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. These Flinders Ranges glacial sediments were laid down within 10 degrees of the equator. They were also deposited in other locations around the world and led to a second “Snowball Earth’” event for Earth. The Flinders Ranges Elatina Formation is characterised by glacial diamictites (poorly sorted or unsorted sediments) at Enorama Creek in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, as well as rhythmites, which are remarkably fine, thinly-laminated sediments that record the rhythm of daily, monthly and annual tide cycles at the end of this Cryogenian Period ice age. The end of the intense glacial conditions of the Elatina ice age also marked the end of the Cryogenian Period of time, after which saw the onset of warmer conditions for Earth.

Post-Cryogenian warming: The intense cold of the Elatina glaciation suppressed the flourishing of life and this in turn diminished the consumption of carbon dioxide. There was also no further record of the enigmatic life forms of Arkaroola-Oodnaminta Reef. Continued volcanicity meant the gradual build-up of greenhouse gases once again and a gradual warming of the Earth. These wild swings in concentrations of atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide affecting the climate in the Neoproterozoic also made it difficult for animal life to evolve. This was to change with the warmer, more stable conditions of the Ediacaran Period as carbon dioxide levels rebuilt and greenhouse conditions returned. At the end of the Elatina glaciation, the cap carbonates in Enorama Creek geological record point to some wild weather conditions on Earth, with their remarkable and unexplained sedimentary structures.

Ediacaran Global Stratotype Section and Point (635 million years ago): The Ediacaran Period, represented by the Flinders Ranges, has been officially recognised with its own Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) Boundary in the Enorama Creek in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, the only such international marker point in the Southern Hemisphere (Knoll et al., 2006). A GSSP is an internationally agreed upon reference point, physically marked in a well-exposed, continuous stratigraphic section of rock, which identifies the lower boundary of a defined period of time. The Ediacaran GSSP is internationally recognised on the geologic time scale, and is of immense significance for calibrating geological time on Earth.

Shuram-Wonoka Carbon Isotope Excursion (580-560 million years ago): The largest most protracted negative carbon isotope excursion in Earth’s history is recorded in the Wonoka Formation signifying a dramatic perturbation to the global carbon cycle (Williams and Schmidt, 2018). This event, referred to globally as the “Shuram-Wonoka excursion”, preserves an unprecedented global environmental event that immediately proceeds the advent of animals. Yet within this unit, early evidence of the Ediacara Biota are preserved in the form of discs, rare fronds and the enigmatic fossil Palaeopashichnus (Haines, 2000).

Ediacaran Biota (560-542 million years ago): With warming conditions during the Ediacaran, there was a rapid radiation of complex marine life. These Ediacaran fossils were made famous by South Australian geologist Reg Sprigg, following his discovery of them in 1946 in what is now Ediacara Conservation Park (Sprigg, 1947). These Ediacaran fossils represent the emergence of animal life on Earth, marked by the appearance of major new body plans exemplified in 80 new life forms, including Ikaria, the newly described oldest bilaterian (the animal body plan that includes mollusks, arthropods and humans among most other organisms) (Evans et al., 2020). But this assemblage also includes early evolutionary experiments in complex life not found in modern animal assemblages, such as tri-radial body plans (Hall et al., 2020). During the Ediacaran Period, thick microbial or algal mats were developing, covering vast expanses of the seafloor, and Ediacaran animal life evolved with this mat-ground environment, becoming surface-dwellers and dependant on this organic mat for nutrients (Gehling and Droser, 2009; Seilacher, 1999; Evans  et al., 2019). Exposed in profile in Brachina Gorge in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, fossils of the Ediacara biota are present in Neoproterozoic sedimentary sequences well below the base of early Cambrian strata. Importantly, these sequences demonstrate that this attempt at the emergence of animal life is recorded in multiple bedding layers in Brachina Gorge. It was not a “one-off” event.

The unprecedented excavation of nearly 40 fossiliferous beds representing multiple different environments and revealing tens of thousands of extremely well-preserved and diverse fossils at the Nilpena Ediacara fossil site has revolutionised our understanding of this remarkable time in Earth’s history. It is the most important site on Earth for understanding the diversification of Ediacaran body plans, the environments that they inhabited, and their seafloor ecological relationships. The site preserves the peak of the diversity of the Ediacara Biota (Xiao and LaFlamme, 2009; Droser et al., 2017; Droser et al., 2019; Evans et al., 2018). Furthermore, the advent of significant biological and ecological innovations are revealed in the preserved seafloor at Nilpena, such as evidence of mobility by the first bilaterians (Droser and Gehling, 2015), scavenging behaviour by shallow burrowers (Gehling and Droser, 2018), the oldest likely pelagic animal (Droser et al., 2019), and some of the earliest evidence for hard body parts (Clites et al., 2012), innovations which were carried through and greatly flourished during the early Cambrian. The diversity of Ediacaran organic mats and the manner in which the Ediacara Biota interacted with these mats are represented on the 40 fossiliferous surfaces (Droser et al., 2019). The site is relatively new to science and provides a remarkable expansion of our knowledge of early life on Earth. Nilpena’s Ediacara fossil site (560-542 million years) preserves one of the most diverse suites of Precambrian animal life, and remarkably incorporates fossil types also found in the older (580 million years), deeper-water environments at the Mistaken Point World Heritage property in Canada, as well as from younger other major assemblages around the world (Gehling and Droser, 2013; Xiao and Laflamme, 2009).

Cambrian Period in the Flinders Ranges (542-500 million years): The close of the Ediacaran Period marked the end of the Proterozoic Eon, the beginning of the Phanerozoic Eon and the Cambrian Period on Earth (Gradstein et al., 2012). For the Flinders Ranges (and on most other continents), this transition is marked by a geologically brief erosional period in the geological record, with the boundary being able to be “stepped over” at locations such as Brachina Gorge in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park and at Maynards Well.

The Adelaide Rift Complex records the earliest sediments of the Cambrian Period, including the oldest two recorded Series (Terreneuvian and undefined Series 2). New biostratigraphic (Betts et al., 2016, 2017 and chronostratigraphic (Betts et al., 2018) data for the lower Cambrian successions in the Flinders Ranges not only provide a high resolution temporal framework for the most important part of the biotic radiation, but facilitates close correlation to other synchronous lower Cambrian rocks within Australia and around the world. Each Series has been represented in the serial World Heritage property and records the rise of animal life on Earth. The earliest life forms in the Cambrian, including early burrowing trace fossils and Ediacara-like body fossils found at Castle Rock at Maynards Well (540 million years ago), are found in well exposed, flat lying Terreneuvian Series rocks (Droser et al., 1999). Though the Castle Rock exposures show that some rare Ediacaran-like body plans survive into the Cambrian (Jensen et al., 1998), the rise of predation by Cambrian animals hastened the demise of these surface-feeding or osmotrophic soft-bodied Ediacaran forms (Bicknell and Paterson, 2019). The boundary between the Fortunian Stage and unnamed Stage 2 that subdivide the Terreneuvian Series is represented by a change from horizontal burrowing to the emergence of deep vertical burrowing into soft sediment seafloors (Mángano and Buatois, 2014), which significantly disturbed the microbial mat on which Ediacaran life depended. This evolution of deep burrowing is also related to the evolution of more complex bilaterian body plans and muscle systems, possibly one type of evolutionary response to the rise of predation (Bicknell and Paterson, 2018) and a new adaptation for animal life on Earth. The Flinders Ranges is the best place on Earth to witness one of the most important ecological phenomena in Earth’s history: the demise of exclusively mat-ground surface-dwelling lifestyles in the Ediacaran, and the advent of deep burrowing into the seafloor in the Cambrian. This bioturbation of the seafloor would forever alter Earth’s marine environment, and ultimately lead to the complexity of life on Earth as we know it today.

Cambrian explosion of life: The lower Cambrian rocks exposed in the Flinders Ranges lay out in remarkable quality and clarity the key aspects of the what palaeontologists describe as the “Cambrian explosion of life” (Jago et al., 2020). This event commenced approximately 541±1 million years ago, lasted for about 15 to 20 million years, and resulted in the origination and divergence of most modern animal phyla that exist today. The rise and flourishing of biomineralized skeletons, animal-based reef structures (including the oldest known corals; see Fuller and Jenkins, 2007), complex ecological interactions (Paterson et al., 2007) and communities are extremely well preserved in Terreneuvian and unnamed Series 2 rocks of the Flinders Ranges (Jago et al., 2020). Cambrian Series 2 rocks in the Flinders Ranges commence with the earliest evidence of trilobites, and record the Cambrian evolutionary explosion, presented by a major diversification of animal body plans, lifestyles and ecologies, comparable to that seen on Earth today. The Flinders Ranges preserve many of these emergent animal groups at the height of the Cambrian explosion.

Reef constructions: The early Cambrian of the Flinders Ranges hosts some of the earliest framework reefs built by animals on Earth. They were formed by a mega-diverse clade of non-spiculate, sessile, calcareous spongiomorphs called Archaeocyatha in combination with calcimicrobes (calcareous colonial microorganisms). These fossil reefs are found foremost at Ajax Hill, which are widely acknowledged as some of the best preserved archaeocyaths on Earth (Kruse and Debrenne, 2020; Kruse in Brock et al., 2016), as well as at Brachina Gorge in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, and at Angorichina (Jago et al., 2020). The complex marine habitats built by animals created a range of habitats for other animals. Ajax Hill is not only the type locality for the great majority of described Australian archaeocyath species and genera, but also by a number of measures represents the most species diverse archaeocyath locality worldwide. The specimens preserved in this complex Cambrian biohermal-reef system are amongst the best preserved in the world and the overall reef structure was similar to modern animal constructed reef systems, but contrasts significantly with the Neoproterozoic Arkaroola reef, largely built by non-animals (stromatolites) and inorganic carbonate precipitation.  More sophisticated reef-building animals also evolved during the formation of the Flinders Ranges. The oldest known coralomorphs (tabulate coral-like fossils) on Earth are recorded from Wilkawillina Gorge in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park (Fuller and Jenkins, 2007) and have been observed in Balcoracanna Gorge on Angorichina. Tabulate corals later became the dominant reef-building organisms during the Ordovician period.

Animal diversity and body plan evolution: The Flinders Ranges captures the origins and diversification of many of the most important animal phyla (Jago et al., 2020). The Bunkers Range Cambrian Series 2 fossils include some extremely significant early multiplated (Jacquet et al., 2014) and univalve molluscs (Jacquet and Brock, 2016) including Tannuella elinorae (Brock and Paterson, 2004) which has been suggested as the possible ancestor of cephalopods (Vinther, 2015). Other major groups include brachiopods (Topper et al., 2013), trilobites (Pocock, 1970), non-trilobite arthropods (bradoriids and palaeoscolecid worms) (Betts et al., 2014; Topper et al., 2010, 2011) and other diverse shelly fossils, including a highly diverse small shelly fossil group called tommotiids, which are only known from East Gondwana (Australia-Antarctica). The Bunkers Range on Angorichina has revealed the first and only known articulated tommotiid specimens of Eccentrotheca helenia (Skovsted et al., 2008, 2011; Balthasar et al., 2009) and Paterimitra pyramidalis (Skovsted et al., 2009; Larsson et al., 2014); these animals secreted a complex tubular body plan cemented directly to the substrate, firmly placing these taxa within ancestral lineages of lophophorates, that potentially gave rise to brachiopods and phoronids. The Flinders Ranges is headquarters for our understanding of these enigmatic, but incredibly important group of animals and recent detailed work has unexpectedly revealed another group of tommotiids, the camenellans, mobile surface grazing animals with a complex multi-plated external skeleton (Skovsted et al., 2015). The superbly exposed strata from the Bunkers Range on Angorichina also host well preserved and diverse species of  brachiopods, palaeoscolecid worms, bradoriid arthropods, and molluscs. These rocks also host an important silicified trilobite assemblage that is representative of the Pararaia bunyerooensis Zone (Paterson and Brock, 2007) which can be correlated with the Eoredlichia-Wutingaspis Zone of South China, which includes the famous World Heritage listed Chengjiang Biota.

The early Cambrian fossil assemblages of the Flinders Ranges carbonate successions provide a completely different window into early Cambrian life on a warm, tropical, shallow marine environment over a 30 million year interval, thus complementing the remarkable soft-bodied fossils of Early and Middle Cambrian animal life in the younger, deeper water non-carbonate settings of the Chengjiang Fossil Site World Heritage property (South China) and the Burgess Shale fossil site within the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage property.

End of the Adelaide Rift Complex: Tectonic forces of the “Delamerian Orogeny”, a mountain-building event in the middle to late Cambrian (about 500 million years ago), ended deposition within the Adelaide Rift Complex and produced the spectacular folded strata of the Flinders Ranges. Rejuvenation of the Adelaide Rift Complex in the Cenozoic (from about 65 million years ago) along north-south faults produced the landscape we see today, including erosion and exposure of the basement rocks and the readily accessible 350 million year old geological sequences.

Governance and strategic planning: Four of the component parts are existing protected areas: the Arkaroola Protection Area (protected by the South Australian Arkaroola Protection Act 2012; refer Irving, 2012); Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park; Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park; and Ediacara Conservation Park (protected by the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972). The Ediacara Fossil Site at Nilpena will become a new National Park in 2021. One component part, Ajax Hill, is a State Heritage Place (protected by the South Australian Heritage Places Act 1993) located on part of the Puttapa pastoral property. The remaining two component parts are located on parts of pastoral properties at Maynards Well and Angorichina; management of existing protected areas is effective to conserve their values. The three component parts on Angorichina, Manyards Well and Puttapa pastoral leases are managed under the South Australian Pastoral Land Management and Conservation Act 1989, and there will be formal conservation agreements put in place for those leases.

Subject to further discussion and agreement, management of the proposed serial World Heritage property will be at two levels. First, a strategic plan will be developed and implemented by a future governance body responsible for coordinating management for the entire World Heritage property. The governance body will be made up of Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners, representative component part managers, and other regional and state representatives. The strategic plan will include planning guidance from individual detailed component part management plans. This planning work will be undertaken as part of the nomination process and prior to any on-ground technical evaluation of the nomination. This strategic plan is expected to coordinate government and private sector investments for matters such as the protection of the values, scientific research, visitor access, infrastructure, collaboration and partnerships, and presentation information. The strategic plan will trigger a number of more detailed policy and/or management documents on subjects such as tourism that necessarily involve a range of stakeholders in addition to the membership of the property’s governance body. Secondly, as management will be undertaken at the property level, each component part will also have specific management plans to guide the protection and management of their values.

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners: The proposed serial World Heritage property is entirely located within the traditional lands of the Adnyamathanha People, who are the recognised native title holders under Australia’s Native Title Act 1993. The Australian and South Australian governments are both committed to consultation and cooperation with the Adnyamathanha People on this World Heritage proposal, and will not submit the nomination until free, prior and informed consent has been obtained. The Adnyamathanha People have an intricate and spiritual relationship with the land, plants, animals and Awi Urtu (ephemeral streams and waterholes) of the Flinders Ranges. This relationship is called Yura Muda (Adnyamathanha belief of creation). The cultural beliefs and practices of the Adnyamathanha People associated with birth, death, ceremonies, social interaction, hunting, harvesting, camping and travelling all derive from Yura Muda. There are also many features of the landscape as well as archaeological, spiritual and cultural sites that are linked to Yura Muda and are very important to Adnyamathanha People (DEW, 2017).

At the Warratyi Cave in the northern Flinders Ranges, researchers found thousands of artefacts and bone fragments, which enabled them to date the shelter's occupation to a number of periods between 49,000 and 10,000 years ago. The finds include the earliest evidence in Australia of the development of bone and stone-axe technology, the use of ochre, and interaction with megafauna such as Diprotodon to tell a unique story of what people were doing in the landscape in the Late Pleistocene (Hamm et al., 2016). The profound and ongoing connections between the Adnyamathanha People and their Country, including the Flinders Ranges, was legally recognised in 2009 through the granting of native title under Australia’s Native Title Act 1993. Claims for native title on behalf of the Adnyamathanha People were first filed in the Federal Court of Australia during the late 1990s. Later in 2001 the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA) incorporated to assist manage those claims. In 2009 when the court determined that native title exists, the corporation became the prescribed body corporate to look after the native title rights and interests for the Adnyamathanha People. Over the years there have been seven determinations made about native title rights and interests of the Adnyamathanha People, covering 41,000 square kilometres of land in and around the Flinders Ranges. 

The Adnyamathanha People will be represented on the steering committee guiding the preparation of the World Heritage nomination dossier through ATLA. Discussions between the South Australian Government and ATLA are underway with the aim of forming a partnership to develop the nomination dossier through a collaborative process. This will include their involvement in the governance arrangements for the management of the World Heritage Property following inscription. Through these structures, the requirement for free, prior and informed consent will be obtained for the nomination.

The Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park and Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park each have a co-management board through a legal agreement between the South Australian Minister for Environment and Water and ATLA. These boards are responsible for managing the National Parks, replacing the Director of National Parks and Wildlife as the “relevant authority” managing the parks under the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972. The co-management boards are responsible for setting all policy for the parks and are supportive of World Heritage recognition, with work underway through the boards to define the World Heritage elements and their associated cultural and management directions.

National protection for World Heritage: Once included on the World Heritage List the serial World Heritage property will be protected by the Australian Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). This will provide protection to the seven component parts and their 34 elements under provisions of the EPBC Act as well the protection they may receive under South Australian legislation. Approval is required under the EPBC Act for any action that is likely, has or will have a significant impact on the Outstanding Universal Value of a World Heritage listed place.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The proposed Flinders Ranges serial World Heritage property provides evidence for the emergence of animal life and its supporting environments on Earth as a major stage in Earth’s history. The effectively continuous 350 million year stratigraphic sequence of the Adelaide Rift Complex extends from the Mesoproterozoic to the Cambrian. This is the critical time period when animal life first emerged on our planet, developed in the Ediacaran, and then diversified during the Cambrian explosion of life. Evidence of the emergence and evolution of complex life at three different significant intervals is preserved within their stratigraphic context. There is nowhere else known on Earth where the emergence and subsequent diversification of animal life, and the climate and environmental conditions that supported habitable Earth, is represented by such a continuous and highly accessible geological record.

The emergence of animal life in the Flinders Ranges is presented by three separate events. The first event is recorded by the emergence of enigmatic sponge-like animals during the favourable, warming interglacial conditions, between the Sturt and Elatina glaciations (650 million years ago). Remarkably, these short-lived sponge-like organisms, found in deeper water in the precipitous front edge of Arkaroola Reef, are 90 million years older than animal species that emerged later, during the Ediacaran. This initial recorded attempt at animal life was short-lived. There was no further record of these life forms following the extreme cold of the Elatina glaciation, marking the end of the Cryogenian Period (635 million years ago).

Warmer and more stable oxygen-rich conditions during an interval in the Ediacaran (550 million years ago) supported the emergence of animal life. This is the Ediacaran radiation event, exemplified by fossilised seafloors at Nilpena, presenting more than 80 life forms from at least four major marine habitats. It is the richest and most diverse Ediacaran fossil site on Earth, superbly preserving not only multiple animal life forms, but capturing a ‘snapshot’ of these life forms within their ecological context. The diversity of fossils at Nilpena complement other Ediacaran sites, including the age equivalent Ediacaran deposits along the exposed coastline of the White Sea in Russia, the distinctively younger Ediacaran deposits found in inland Namibia, and those found in the older and deeper-water settings of the Mistaken Point (Canada) site. Some animals recorded at Nilpena are unlike anything known on modern Earth, including the remarkable taxon Tribrachidium, which shows three-fold body symmetry. Over the last two years published work arising from research at Nilpena has confirmed the presence of bilaterians there, which are perhaps the oldest known relatives of our human species on Earth. The rich array of animals at Nilpena represents the dramatic initial radiation of animal life over millions of years on Earth.

For the all-important Precambrian-Cambrian boundary about 541 ± 1 million years ago, the earliest Cambrian sequences preserve rare evidence of Ediacaran “holdover” animals that remained extant into the Cambrian. The climate of the Cambrian, like the Ediacaran, had continued to be stable and warm with supporting atmospheric oxygen levels suitable for the continued emergence of animal life. The most successful episode of emergence and diversification of animal life on Earth occurred during the early Cambrian and is incredibly well represented in the Flinders Ranges by well constrained and exceedingly rich fossil beds that demonstrate the “Cambrian explosion of life”. The highly accessible lower Cambrian rock sequences of Brachina Gorge portray animal species with an evolutionarily novel muscular ability to tunnel below the surface. This burrowing behaviour has been interpreted as a response to active predation and survival: to get out of harm’s way. It is also perhaps why the largely soft-bodied Ediacaran species, attempting to maintain their mat-ground lifestyles in the Cambrian, were highly exposed and vulnerable to predation, and why these species disappeared from the fossil record at this time.

The Flinders Ranges brilliantly record the emergence of Cambrian animals. Brachina Gorge and Ajax Hill also present some of the best preserved archaeocyathid framework reefs on Earth; Wilkawillina Gorge (along with Chambers Gorge in the east) preserves the earliest known coralomorph species, a predecessor to modern corals; and Angorichina records the emergence of small shelly fauna with mineralised protective armour including a diverse range of animal groups including molluscs, arthropods (trilobites, bradoriids, armoured worms), brachiopods and the phosphatic shelled tommotiids. Complex reefs constructed by a consortia of archaeocyaths and calcimicrobes were present together with a complexity of life forms. Another site at Angorichina records the extinction of the archaeocyathids, which resulted from changes in the early Cambrian environment.

There is nowhere else on Earth that presents in one stratigraphic sequence and with such high quality and accessibility, this major stage of Earth’s history, “the dawn of animal life”, with its climates and environments including the three emergent animal life events in the Neoproterozoic and Phanerozoic. The first animal life event, the enigmatic sponges of Arkaroola Reef, is relatively new to science. The next two animal life events, the remarkable diverse Ediacaran radiation event and the emergence of life forms in the Cambrian, including the advent of deep burrowing and extensive framework reef-building animals, represent the world’s finest known examples of these life forms.

The effectively continuous 350 million year stratigraphic sequence of the Adelaide Rift Complex extending from the Neoproterozoic to the Cambrian is a major stage in Earth’s history recognised as the “dawn of animal life”. The evidence for the Flinders Ranges World Heritage narrative is sourced from 34 outstanding geological sites (elements) located in seven geographic areas (component parts) in the central and northern Flinders Ranges. Included in the Arkaroola Protection Area component part are the Mesoproterozoic basement “hot rocks”, due their contribution and influence during the 350 million year formation of the nominated stratigraphic sequence of the Adelaide Rift Complex and their subsequent protracted influence in the region.

The Flinders Ranges geological successions present this major stage in Earth’s history through remarkable rock exposures across breathtaking landscapes. This includes evidence of the two greatest ice ages recorded on Earth (the earliest of these, the Sturt ice age is presented at Arkaroola Protection Area by one of the finest and largest glacial deposits known anywhere on Earth); a superbly preserved Neoproterozoic barrier reef at Kingsmill Creek Gorge, also at Arkaroola; the exceptional seafloor bedding layers that preserve the Ediacaran fauna at Nilpena and Ediacara Conservation Park, along with the dipping Ediacaran sequences at Brachina Gorge; and the grand Castle Rock preserving the earliest Cambrian sediments and first evidence of complex animal burrowing.

Criterion (viii): The proposed Flinders Ranges serial World Heritage property with its seven component parts and 34 elements present an effectively unbroken record of the climate and environment conditions of Earth, and three evolutionary events that underpin the “dawn of animal life” on Earth. This major stage in Earth’s history extended over 350 million years from the Neoproterozoic Era to the Phanerozoic Eon at a time when animal life on Earth first evolved. It is the only place on Earth where such a near-continuous stratigraphic sequence and record of past climates and environment conditions interplaying with the emergence of animal life exists.

Therefore, the proposed Flinders Ranges serial World Heritage property presents the dawn of animal life on Earth. It is a significant 350 million year interval in Earth’s history between the Neoproterozoic and the early Phanerozoic that is represented by a single, highly accessible stratigraphic sequence recording Earth’s changing climates and environments and three major episodes of the emergence of animal life: 1. The emergence of enigmatic, deep water spongiform organisms during an interglacial interval in the Neoproterozoic; 2. A major radiation event during the Ediacaran Period with over 80 life forms, including new complex animal body-plans; and, 3. The rise and “explosive” diversification of bilaterian animals and complex shallow water tropical ecosystems during the early Cambrian; most living animal groups are descended directly from ancestors that evolved during this Cambrian explosion bioevent.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The proposed Flinders Ranges serial World Heritage property has a high level of integrity. Included in the exceptionally well preserved 34 geological elements are a near continuous record of a 350 million year major stage of Earth’s history. They are intact and are mostly located in protected areas where they are completely protected from mining or other disturbance such as quarrying or road construction. The South Australian Government has commenced the process of reviewing the exploration and mining access regime for component parts that currently still provide such access.

Comparison with other similar properties

An analysis of all World Heritage properties, all properties listed on Tentative Lists and in the geological literature concludes that there is no equivalent single 350 million year geological stratigraphic sequence known that includes evidence of the emergence of animal life, spanning the Neoproterozoic and early Cambrian Period. The Flinders Ranges is one of a kind. No other site can directly link the interaction between changing climates and environments on Earth with the evolution of animal life, for such a continuous period. Other sites do feature some comparable attributes or specific elements presented by the Flinders Ranges, including five existing World Heritage properties which complement (not duplicate) these Flinders Ranges attributes and elements.

The near-continuous 350 million year sedimentary succession of the Flinders Ranges is unmatched. The only contender that comes close is the Archaean succession wonderfully presented by the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa. This World Heritage property presents a continuous ancient exposure of Archaean rocks spanning 340 million years (3,600 – 3,250 Ma). This continuous volcanic and sedimentary succession preserves early prokaryotes represented by microfossils, stromatolites and varieties of biomat. The Flinders Ranges complements this by continuing to record planet Earth’s ancient geology and climates for a different stage on Earth, and captures the evolution and diversification of complex animal life in the proceeding Proterozoic Eon, and early Phanerozoic.

Mistaken Point, a World Heritage property in Canada, protects one of the greatest Ediacaran fossil locations on Earth. Of deeper marine origin, this 17 kilometre-long strip of rugged coastal cliffs dates to the Ediacaran Period (580–560 million years) and represents the oldest known assemblages of large Ediacaran fossils anywhere. The deeper marine environment and older Mistaken Point Ediacaran fossils differ in environment and age from the younger Flinders Ranges animals. While the Mistaken Point fossil locality beautifully presents the advent of large complex life, represented by around 15 taxa, almost all of these are sessile, frond-like organisms with a similar body plan; whereas the remarkable ecological diversity of the Flinders Ranges boasts a radiation of body plans not matched by these earlier Ediacaran deposits, including bilaterians. Ediacaran fossils from the Flinders Ranges complement the Mistaken Point World Heritage property as they present the evolution of Ediacaran life through time, to more complex organisms including animals and ecosystems, resembling those of living communities.

The 530 million year Chengjiang Fossil Site World Heritage property in China presents a rich record of an early Cambrian fossil community with exceptionally well preserved biota, displaying the anatomy of hard and soft tissues in a very wide variety of organisms, invertebrates and vertebrates. It records the early establishment of a complex marine ecosystem. The site protects evidence of about 196 species. The shallower marine environments of the earliest Cambrian sequence in the Flinders Ranges complement the Chengjiang Fossil Site World Heritage property, by recording the first evidence of deep burrowing into the seafloor and the first reef-building animals, heralding the Cambrian explosion.

The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage property protects the internationally famous Burgess Shale fossil site. This Cambrian site records a diverse and abundant marine community dominated by soft-bodied organisms. Originating soon after the rapid unfolding of animal life (around 541 million years), the fossils provide key evidence of the history and early evolution of most animal groups known today. The Flinders Ranges Cambrian fossils (530–510 million years) precede and complement the 508 million year Burgess Shale deposits. They are older and from different habitat types: the Flinders Ranges fossils being from shallow and near-shore waters whereas the Burgess Shale fossils were preserved in deeper water and oxygen-poor environments, distant from shore.

The Lena Pillars Nature Park World Heritage property located in the Russian Federation contains one of the most significant records of the 'Cambrian explosion' of animal life. The property preserves a continuous, fully documented and rich record of the diversification of skeletal animals and other biomineralised organisms from their first appearance until the first mass extinction event they suffered. The Flinders Ranges Cambrian fossils record similar fauna, with differences including the critical evolution of deeply burrowing animals in the very beginning of the Cambrian, and the most diverse archaeocyatha framework reefs. The Flinders Ranges Cambrian deposits therefore provide a broader, more comprehensive picture of the evolution and demise of early Cambrian life, reflected by the Series 1 and Series 2 Cambrian stages. Furthermore, the Cambrian sediments of the Flinders Ranges are much more accessible and their preservation and presentation is superior to that of the Lena Pillars property.

The proposed Flinders Ranges serial World Heritage property does not replicate existing World Heritage properties; rather it complements and enriches them. Its narrative portrays the dawn of animal life on Earth, the environmental conditions that established habitable Earth and facilitated attempts at life and those conditions that worked against animal life succeeding. It records the triumph of the Ediacaran radiation, its subsequent demise and the success of Cambrian animals. It preserves life forms from palaeoenvironments very different from existing World Heritage properties and provides exceptional and continuous environmental, evolutionary and palaeoecological contextual information at the time of the emergence of animal life on Earth.


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