Editor’s note: This issue we feature 2017 Strimple Award Winner Ross Fargher of Nilpena Station, South Australia. Ross was nominated for this award by Mary Droser of the University of California, Riverside and Jim Gehling of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide.
by Mary Droser
Over 15 years ago, Dr. Jim Gehling and I stood on Ross Fargher’s veranda at Nilpena Station in South Australia and while Ross played with a red back spider with the toe of his boot, we asked if we might work on the fossils exposed on his property. We proposed to excavate beds and planned to leave them basically in place as there have been issues with fossil looters on his property in the past. We thought then, naively, that it would be a few years. In the years since, we have been able to excavate nearly 40 fossiliferous beds – well over 300 square meters of Ediacaran Seafloor, we have exposed tens of thousands of fossils, described many new taxa and a patch of the Fargher property has become an extraordinary locality for Ediacara fossils and one of the best localities for fossils of any age in the world. It is now a National Heritage site. All of this is because of Ross Fargher and not simply because he granted permission. It is all that he has done after that day – his unyielding dedication to all aspects of the overall project – which he does without any financial gain or investment but simply because he is interested and keen about these fossils. Importantly, for the field of paleontology, he is dedicated with both his time and energy, to the preservation and conservation of these fossils.
There are many “special” aspects of Ediacara fossils. They are soft-bodied and thus rare. They also represent the earliest multicellular animals on the planet. This means that they are valuable and there is a HUGE black market for them. They are also preserved on the base of beds and in the past have required luck in that pieces of float are available or as we have done, for the first time, require massive excavation of beds. This combination of factors dictates a style and mode of fieldwork unlike what most of us are used to.
Nilpena Station is over 950 square kilometers. The localities with Ediacara fossils were discovered originally by Ross and he continues to look for them as he rounds up cattle or checks bores or susses out sites for movie locations (Rabbit Proof Fence, Tracks, The Rover and other notable movies have been made on his property). The localities are not on previous roads or tracks and many are on hillsides. Accessibility is issue number one. Ross pulled out his tracker and made us “roads”. While we still have walks – we are able to drive in much of our equipment. Some of the beds that we wanted to excavate are under a great deal of overburden. Whenever asked, Ross gets his digger and helps to remove overlying soil or beds that are not part of the overall fossiliferous succession. We have had situations where we cannot figure out how to move a particularly large slab; Ross Fargher has never met a rock that he can’t figure out how to move. He also has continually provided his ATV so that we can bring out very large rocks with fossils preserved in 3-D that could not be otherwise transported. He provides workspace and storage space for specimens and equipment.
The preservation and conservation of these fossils is extremely tricky. There is the short-term issue – keeping people off the property and there is the long-term issue – what do we need 20 years from now? Ross has been engaged in both aspects. We received a grant from the Australian federal government for security cameras. He installed these video cameras on the main gate that one has to go through to get to the localities. He is diligent at keeping people at bay and he keeps a close eye on the video feed for any movement – up until now, only kangaroos and cattle. He does not allow anyone on his property near the fossil localities unless we are asked and typically, unless we are present. He keeps fences in the area locked and in shape.
Ross, with his wife, Jane, are working tirelessly to find a long term solution to the preservation and conservation of the property. They are at a time in their lives that they would like to sell Nilpena. They could easily sell it to a local rancher with disregard of the fossils – this would, needless to say, be a paleontological disaster. Instead, they are taking the route to try and work with the government to come up with a solution that still works financially for them. This is not an easy road and yet, they are still willing to pursue it and have been doing so for years. They feel responsible for these fossils. I cannot believe how fortunate we are to have the Fargher’s own Nilpena. Most people would not have even allowed us to excavate, much less help facilitate field work at every turn and then protect the locality and work to preserve it for the future.
Ross is not a typical Strimple nominee. Most have spent time in the field in some stream finding fossils with professionals or for professionals, some even co-authoring papers. Ross is unique. His dedication over the last 15 years is breathtaking. Absolutely, unequivocally we have one of the best fossil localities in the world entirely because of him. He is not on his hands and knees with a hand lens, but his contributions are much greater than that. He gives of himself and his time generously and with great humor. He is determined that these fossils be preserved and conserved for generations to come. How lucky we are!
About the Farghers by Ross Fargher
The Fargher Family has been grazing sheep and cattle in the Flinders Ranges for 5 generations stretching back to the 1850s. A fourth generation pastoralist, Ross Fargher has continued the family tradition running cattle on remote Nilpena Station, adjacent to the Flinders Ranges in the semi-arid north of South Australia – the sparse vegetation limits the carrying capacity to 1700 cattle across the property expanse of 200,000 acres.
While still operating as a Cattle Station, self-employed Ross has spent much of his time within the Film Industry providing Location and Production Services. Nilpena boasts an amazing diversity of Desert Landscapes well known to the industry. The much photographed Red Sand Dunes and substantial historic stone Station buildings, valuable relics of early European settlement, have featured in Rabbit Proof Fence and many other productions and commercials.
In the early 1980’s, while mustering on the property, Ross observed evidence of rippled stone which he shared with research scientists. Nilpena is now home to the National Heritage listed Fossil Site. Conserved as an outdoor museum, the Nilpena Site is where NASA funded world-leading palaeobiologist Mary Droser from the University of California and a team of researchers from the South Australian Museum have exposed, excavated, flipped and reassembled large samples of fossil covered seafloors, in an in-situ excavation site considered by scientists from all over the globe to be one of the most intact and rich Ediacara fossil sites in the world. The Nilpena Site has produced findings not present at any other Ediacaran site
For the past 17 years, Dr. Droser, her family, and research team have made an annual pilgrimage to Nilpena where they consider the station’s rustic shearers quarters their summer residence; their combined enthusiasm is infectious.
New found knowledge has provided Ross a new perspective through which to view the world and provides him a diversion from running cattle. Ross finds it difficult to comprehend that long before livestock roamed Nilpena, this marginal country was once underwater and was home to an array of ancient creatures that scientists today say mark the dawn of animal life.
For the past 26 years Ross together with his wife Jane have owned and operated the multi award winning Outback Pub, the Prairie Hotel, located in nearby Parachilna, population 3.
The Prairie Hotel provides an eco-luxury experience to guests offering a unique perspective of Outback life with a contemporary urban style. The one of a kind Prairie Hotel bar offers the opportunity for guests to meet outback characters & travelers from all over the world – you never know who you might meet in Parachilna!
In 2009, the Prairie hosted Sir David Attenborough and his crew on their visit to South Australia, during the filming of First Life Series. Sir David continues to talk firsthand about his experience in South Australia .
Ross Fargher’s commitment to the protection of fossils and the significance of the Nilpena site has been recognised in stone, with the naming of a new fossil, Nilpenia rossi. Palaeontologists, with the support of the local community, are now working on a combined effort to gain World Heritage Listing for specific sites in the region.
In summary, Ross Fargher’s exceptional observation skills lead directly to the discovery of Ediacara fossils at Nilpena, a site previously considered to be barren of Ediacara fossils. The Ediacara fossils he discovered happened to be new to science, representing a new preservational facies. Not only was Ross able to observe such subtle evidence, but appreciated that his discoveries were likely to be important to science, and so took care to remember the localities. Ross and Jane Fargher appreciate the importance of not only the fossils but also the paleontological context represented by the Nilpena Heritage precinct. As such they are keen to see Nilpena managed for scientific research in perpetuity, if a suitable management authority can be found to ensure the heritage value of the property.
The science of evolution and the origin of animals has greatly benefited from the observational skills, interest and efforts of amateur geologists like Ross Fargher in addition to his unpaid role as a manager and custodian of this world renowned Ediacara fossil site.–Jim Gehling
To learn more:
Read more about Nilpenia rossi in Droser, M. L., Gehling, J. G., Dzaugis, M. E., Kennedy, M. J., Rice, D., & Allen, M. F. (2014). A new Ediacaran fossil with a novel sediment displacive life habit. Journal of Paleontology, 88(1), 145-151. http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1666/12-158
More on the locality being named a National Heritage Site can be found at can be found at http://testdesertmsw.blogspot.com/2013/08/earths-oldest-animal-ecosystem-held-in.html and https://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/places/national/ediacara
More on Ediacaran fossils at the South Australian Museum