Discovering the Origins of Life

09 April 2013

The South Australian Museum will tonight welcome internationally-renowned Palaeontologist, Professor Guy Narbonne from Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, to speak at our Sprigg Lecture series.

Professor Narbonne has made several significant discoveries of Pre-Cambrian life, breaking new ground in his field and working with the South Australian Museum's Dr Jim Gehling on several key projects concerning the Ediacara biota. He has travelled the world, speaking at major events and sharing his passion for discovery of the origins of animals.

Some of the vital questions to be answered, he said, were: "how did we get here, and what makes us different from the 15 other extinct experiments that arose at the same time?

"When Darwin wrote The Origin of Species in 1859, he spent an entire chapter talking about a couple of problems stemming from the absence of Pre-Cambrian life," said Prof Narbonne. "(South Australian Geologist) Reg Sprigg helped to solve that. In 1946 Sprigg discovered the fossils of Ediacara. They were so good and they were so clearly pre-Cambrian that the world had to notice. In a real way, he's the watershed that made all this possible – so that's the reason I didn't have to be asked twice to do this lecture."

Ediacaran life has gained worldwide attention. The oldest large and morphologically complex fossils in the world are the Mistaken Point assemblage of Newfoundland in eastern Canada, which are 580–560 million years old.

Professor Narbonne says Australian holds the "longest and richest middle chapter of the Ediacaran story", with the later stages of life found in southern Namibia.

"Half a century of research shows us that many of these creatures were basically failed experiments in the early evolution of life. There are ways that life developed to get multicellular that worked for a little while and there is no trace of them on our planet today," he said. "They are mixed in with creatures that may represent the beginnings of animal life."

Professor Narbonne teamed up with the South Australian Museum's Senior Researcher in Palaeontology Dr Jim Gehling in 1988, when the pair discovered they had similar research interests but different theories on them.

Since then, Professor Narbonne has travelled to South Australia's Flinders Ranges and collaborated with Dr Gehling at the South Australian Museum. He has also taken NASA representatives to Mistaken Point to explain the building blocks of early life, and has worked with Sir David Attenborough.

Most recently, Professor Narbonne presented at Harvard and Yale Universities and at UNESCO in Paris but, he said one of the more rewarding talks was called "Australian fossils" to the kindergarten class at Kurrajong East Public School in New South Wales.

"I explained that science and palaeontology are not things that are 'over there' – and I showed them a fossil collected on a property 700 metres away. Everyone knew the family on the farm. They were so excited about it; they loved it."

As interest in the Ediacaran biota grows, palaeontology is sure to attract more science students. The field is important, said Professor Narbonne, because of its relevance to all other disciplines.

"There's no field of geology that isn't used with it and that it doesn't feed back into as well. You can be a chemist and there are important and exciting things to do. Or you can approach it as a person who models the position of ancient continents. What were the patterns at this time and what does that tell us?

"It has very little to do with dusty fossils in dark cabinets. It's about a dynamic world that we're trying to reconstruct. And I find a sense of amazement in that."

Professor Narbonne is speaking at a booked out session of the Sprigg Lecture series, to be held at the South Australian Museum tonight from 6pm.