Carnets de Géologie / Notebooks on Geology: Memoir 2007/01, Abstract 05 (CG2007_M01/05)

Click here to close the window!


[Introduction] [Background]
[Results] [The possible role of the Acraman impact event]
[Conclusions] and ... [Bibliographic references]

Advances in Ediacaran biostratigraphy in Australia

[Récent développement dans la biostratigraphie
de l'Édiacarien de l'Australie]

Kathleen Grey

Geological Survey of Western Australia, Department of Industry and Resources, 100 Plain Street, East Perth, 6004 (Australia)
Manuscript online since March 22, 2007

Click here to download the PDF version!


Grey K. (2007).- Advances in Ediacaran biostratigraphy in Australia. In: Steemans P. & Javaux E. (eds.), Recent Advances in Palynology.- Carnets de Géologie / Notebooks on Geology, Brest, Memoir 2007/01, Abstract 05 (CG2007_M01/05)

Key Words

Biostratigraphy; palynology; acritarchs; Ediacaran; Australia; Acraman impact.


Biostratigraphie ; palynologie ; acritarches ; Édiacarien ; Australie ; impact d'Acraman.


Despite the effort devoted to studying the Archean and Proterozoic fossil record, there has been only limited progress in developing zonal schemes similar to the ones well established for the Phanerozoic. In part, this reflects taxonomic uncertainty, morphological simplicity, slow rates of evolution, and sporadic distribution patterns during the Proterozoic, as well as perceptions that species diversity is restricted. However, the slow advance is also caused by a lack of rigorous biostratigraphic analysis. With the establishment of the Ediacaran System and Period, and recent discussions by the International Stratigraphic Commission to move away from the current chronometric scheme, the need for biostratigraphic subdivision has increased. In Australia, demands for improved Neoproterozoic correlation to assist the exploration industry and the discovery of well-preserved acanthomorphs in drill cores has encouraged biostratigraphic studies of Australian Ediacaran successions (Grey, 2005). This paper presents a review of some of the advances made to date.


Analyses of more than 900 samples from 20 drillcores and 10 field sections in the Centralian Superbasin and Adelaide Rift Complex showed the feasibility of biostratigraphic correlation based on large, morphologically complex, acanthomorph acritarchs. Abundance, complex morphology, wide lithological and geographical distribution, and restricted time ranges make acritarchs ideal biostratigraphic tools.

Preparation techniques are critical to successful results. Zang & Walter (1992) demonstrated that samples require gentle treatment (i.e. minimal crushing and no centrifuging) to extract large (> 200 µm in diameter), brittle process-bearing acritarchs. Zang obtained good assemblages by processing up to 1 kg of material per sample, but this approach has limitations for biostratigraphy and taphonomic analysis. Refinement of techniques allowed preparation of smaller samples, enhanced specimen recovery, and provided tighter biostratigraphic and palaeoenvironmental control (Grey, 1999, 2005).


Well preserved assemblages were obtained from the Officer and Amadeus Basins (Centralian Superbasin); less well preserved samples have been obtained from the Stuart Shelf. Unfortunately, all samples processed so far from the Adelaide Rift Complex, and in particular from the section above the Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) for the Ediacaran showed high levels of thermal maturity and those from the Georgina Basin are badly oxidized. Seventy-one identifiable palynomorph taxa were recorded; 44 were fully identified and 27 were assigned tentatively or placed in open nomenclature. The 64 acritarch taxa consist of 49 acanthomorphs, 12 sphaeromorphs, and 4 coenobia. The 26 existing taxa were substantially emended, and 7 new combinations, 26 new species and 6 new genera were described (Archaeotunisphaeridium, Australiastrum, Ceratosphaeridium, Labruscasphaeridium, Pennatosphaeridium, and Taedigerasphaera. Remaining palynomorphs were filaments and problematica. More recent work by Willman et alii (2006) has confirmed identifications and stratigraphic distributions in drill holes not previously studied in detail.

Range plots from several Centralian Superbasin drillholes produce consistent patterns suitable for zonation and 2 palynofloras and 5 assemblage zones were recognized by Grey (2005). The older palynoflora, the Ediacaran Leiosphere-dominated Palynoflora (ELP) consists of a single zone, the Leiosphaeridia jacuticaLeiosphaeridia crassa Assemblage Zone. A four-fold zonation is recognised in the Ediacaran Complex Acanthomorph-dominated Palynoflora (ECAP) consisting of the following (from oldest to youngest): the Appendisphaera barbataAlicesphaeridium medusoidumGyalosphaeridium pulchrum Assemblage Zone; the Tanarium conoideumSchizofusa risoriaVariomargosphaeridium litoschum Assemblage Zone; the Tanarium irregulareCeratosphaeridium glaberosumMultifronsphaeridium pelorium Assemblage Zone; and the Ceratosphaeridium mirabileDistosphaera australicaApodastoides verobturatus Assemblage Zone. Zones are demonstrably independent of lithology, and can be recognised across the Officer and Amadeus Basins and Stuart Shelf despite taphonomic and palaeoenvironmental influences. The acanthomorphs show a marked and rapid increase in abundance, size, morphological complexity, and taxonomic diversity that indicate major diversification and significant evolutionary changes. The acanthomorphs appear to belong to a new, short-lived group of phytoplanktonic green algae that represent resting cyst stages and their first appearance lies about two thirds through the second rise in sea-level after the Marinoan glaciation. The late timing of the diversification suggests it is not an immediate consequence of Snowball Earth.

The possible role of the Acraman impact event

Officer Basin sedimentological studies show at least four, possibly five, basin-slope aprons, each consisting of a succession of fine-grained distal turbidite successions of monotonous mudstone and interbedded siltstone capped by shallow-water carbonate (Arouri et alii, 2000). In the second slope apron is an ejecta layer derived from the Acraman impact on the adjacent Gawler Craton (Williams & Wallace, 2003). Initially, the ejecta layer was viewed simply as a significant synchronous marker to be used as datum for species distributions in biostratigraphic studies. However, as compilation progressed, a coincidence between the position of the ejecta layer and the first appearance of acanthomorphs became apparent. Lithology before and after the impact is remarkably uniform. An iridium anomaly is associated with the ejecta layer, and there is a marked, short-lived negative excursion in the δ¹³C organic carbon curve that indicates a rapid fall in organic productivity. A subsequent positive excursion coincides with the diversification of the biota (Grey et alii, 2004; Calver & Lindsay, 1998). The negative excursion is present not only in the Officer Basin, Stuart Shelf and Adelaide Rift Complex, where the ejecta layer is present, but also in the Amadeus Basin, where the layer iself has not been recognised. Furthermore, whole-rock organic geochemical analysis has identified significant changes in sterane patterns and series E and F highly branched alkanes (HBA) at the level of the ejecta layer (McKirdy et alii, 2006; Webster et alii, 2006). The HBA appear to be molecular fossils of anaerobic fermenting bacteria, and their variable abundance in the Dey Dey Mudstone apparently records a short-lived collapse of primary productivity in the Ediacaran ocean soon after the Acraman impact. The probable encysting lifestyle of the acanthomorphs may account for their survival and subsequent proliferation, whereas leiospheres and bacterial mats were largely destroyed by the impact. The size of a dust cloud generated by the impact is of particular significance for such a scenario. In the case of the Acraman impact, this may have been exceptionally large because land areas were devoid of vegetation and continental surfaces would be more like those of the Moon or Mars.


Evidence of a relationship between the impact event and palynofloral diversification remains circumstantial, but supporting evidence is accumulating. Diversification of the algae, the base of the food chain, may have triggered other significant biotic changes, and further studies are indicated. A large impact could be a plausible explanation for dramatic biospheric changes that are otherwise difficult to explain.

Some taxa resemble those from probably coeval successions in China, Siberia, and northern Europe, suggesting that the proposed zonation scheme has good potential for global application. This zonation will serve as an important tool for the correlation of successions that at present lack both biostratigraphic and geochronological controls. Although there are still some gaps in the record (mainly resulting from barren samples or samples containing highly corroded organic matter), unequivocal evidence for the biostratigraphic usefulness of Australian Ediacaran acritarchs has emerged, and it should now be possible to apply the results on a broader scale in other parts of the world.


Thanks to the many people who are providing input for this study, especially Andrew Hill (Centro de Astrobiología - CAB, Madrid), Clive Calver (Mineral Resources Tasmania), Małgorzata Moczydłowska and Sebastian Willman (Uppsala University), and David McKirdy and Lynn Webster (University of Adelaide) for supplying their recent results.

Bibliographic references

Arouri K., Conaghan P.J., Walter M.R., Bischoff G.C. & Grey K. (2000).- Reconnaissance sedimentology and hydrocarbon biomarkers of Ediacarian microbial mats and acritarchs, lower Ungoolya Group, Officer Basin.- Precambrian Research, Amsterdam, vol. 100, p. 235–281.

Calver C.R. & Lindsay J.F. (1998).- Ediacarian sequence and isotope stratigraphy of the Officer Basin, South Australia.- Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, Oxford, vol. 45, p. 513–532.

Grey K. (1999).- A modified palynological preparation technique for the extraction of large Neoproterozoic acanthomorph acritarchs and other acid insoluble microfossils.- Geological Survey of Western Australia, Perth, Record 1999/10, 23 p.

Grey K. (2005).- Ediacaran Palynology of Australia.- Memoirs of the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists, Canberra, vol. 31, 439 p.

Grey K., Walter M.R. & Calver C.R. (2004).- Neoproterozoic biotic diversification: Snowball Earth or aftermath of the Acraman impact?- Geology, Boulder, vol. 31, n° 5, p. 459-462.

McKirdy D.M., Webster L.J., Arouri K.R., Gostin V.A. & Grey K. (2006).- Contrasting sterane signatures in Neoproterozoic marine sediments of the Centralian Superbasin before and after the Acraman bolide impact.- Organic Geochemistry, Oxford, vol. 37, p. 189–207.

Webster L.J., McKirdy D.M., Arouri K.R., Grey K. & Gostin V.A. (2006).- Highly branched C3n alkanes and the Acraman impact event in Ediacaran deep marine shales of the eastern Officer Basin, South Australia.- In: van Aarssen B.G.K. (ed.), The origin and fate of naturally occurring organic matter, Australian Organic Geochemists and Natural Organic Matter Interest Group Conference Program and Abstracts, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, p. 69-70.

Williams G.E. & Wallace M.W. (2003).- The Acraman asteroid impact, South Australia: magnitude and implications for the late Vendian environment.- Journal of the geological Society, London, vol. 160, p. 545-554.

Willman S., Moczydłowska M. & Grey K. (2006).- Neoproterozoic (Ediacaran) radiation of acritarchs – a new record from the Murnaroo 1 drillcore, Officer Basin, Australia.- Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, Amsterdam, vol. 139, n° 1-4, p. 17-39.

Zang W. & Walter M.R. (1992).- Late Proterozoic and Early Cambrian microfossils and biostratigraphy, Amadeus Basin, central Australia.- Memoirs of the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists, Canberra, vol. 12, 132 p.