Associate Professor Diego Garcia-Bellido, a senior researcher of palaeontology at SA Museum, is leading a project using cutting-edge technology to scan 555 million-year-old Ediacaran fossil beds at several world-renowned sites in the Flinders Ranges.

garcia bellido laying on the ground

South Australia’s ancient past is being brought into the future in the Flinders Ranges, with Associate Professor Diego Garcia-Bellido playing a key role in the process.

The senior researcher of palaeontology at SA Museum is involved in a groundbreaking project using cutting-edge technology to scan 555 million-year-old Ediacaran fossil beds at several world-renowned sites throughout the region.

The work is backed by a team of palaeontologists, ecologists and 3D computer graphics experts from a range of institutions, including the museum and The University of Adelaide, where Garcia-Bellido also works. It uses a combination of precision laser scanning and high-resolution photogrammetry to create a permanent digital record of the sites – the first resource of its kind in the world.

The Spanish-born, internationally-educated academic says establishing such an archive of the oldest-known complex marine communities on earth – which provides an insight into early animal life – will prove enormously beneficial.

“South Australia, by sheer luck, has the best fossil record of this important period in Australia and one of the best in the world,” he says.

“Through this project we will gain unprecedented data on community formation in the early stages of animal evolution.”

Garcia-Bellido says the scanned archive will serve a vital role in conserving the “priceless and irreplaceable” fossil information for posterity in case of damage or loss.

“And because you’re making a permanent digital record, you can actually share it around the world easily as files and visit it virtually with VR goggles – something that’s become increasingly important as COVID restricts our ability to bring colleagues and tourism from overseas,” he says.

Archiving will also allow schools a rare glimpse into the past, with the possibility of leveraging findings into STEM studies nationwide.

“We can make 3D printouts for students – and can allow schools to print them out with their own 3D printers – so they can learn about extinction, evolution, past biodiversity and how important it is to preserve our fossil heritage,” Garcia-Bellido says.

“We are teaching palaeontology in the three state universities now and we should soon be able to bring SA fossils to our primary and secondary school curriculums.”

Preserving and promoting South Australia’s “world-class palaeontological heritage” has far-reaching benefits.

“Fortunately there are several generations’ worth of outstanding fossils to study in our state,” he says.

“And when state and federal governments support such research – which puts SA in news all over the planet – this can attract more tourism and business to our regions.

“It will allow more South Australians to work on our amazing fossils if they’d like, while producing a local economic benefit.”

This article originally appeared in Future Adelaide