About 635 Ma ago fossils of large-bodied organisms first appeared in the geological record: some quilt like, others with a crude bilateral symmetry, more looking like ‘mud-filled bags’ and ribbed discs but none that can easily be distinguished as animals, plants or colonial microorganisms. First found abundantly in the Ediacara Hills of South Australia, hence their sack-name the Ediacaran biota, it now seems that they were distributed globally in the late Neoproterozoic Era. Interpreting their metabolism is risky enough – some are reckoned to be animals that absorbed nutrients through their skin, others said to be dependent on photosynthesis – but a controversy has raged for many years over the kind of environment in which they thrived. In a detailed 2012 study of sedimentary structures petrography in the South Australian sandstones from which they were first described, Gregory Retallack of the University of Oregon inferred that some lived on land and are now found in palaeosols: they include Spriggina, Dickinsonia and Charnia that are among the most favoured candidates for being animals or some kind. Others inhabited shallow water. Anticipating fiery disputes a Nature editorial appeared in same issue in which Retallack published his paper .
Retallack has now moved on to the even more fossil-rich Ediacaran sediments of Newfoundland (Retallack, G.J 2016. Ediacaran sedimentology and paleoecology of Newfoundland reconsidered. Sedimentary Geology, v. 333, p. 15-31). Eye-wateringly detailed sequence stratigraphy of the now famous Mistaken Point locality and others suggests that the ecosystem there was an intertidal salt marsh. In detail it contains evidence for shallow-water graded bedding, signs of regular storms and perhaps tsunamis together with interbedded palaeosols and subaerial volcanic crystal tuffs whose feldspars survive intact. The palaeosols can be subdivided into several pedogenic types akin to those used to classify modern soils. Unlike the arid setting of the South Australian Ediacaran sediments, whose palaeosols show signs of freezing, the Newfoundland package indicates humid, cool-temperature climes
As in Australia, the palaeosols are rich in Ediacaran fossils, including the best known; the leaf-like Charnia and its discoidal support structure that appears in Retallack’s reconstruction of the environment in an analogous way to salt-tolerant shrubs in modern tidal flats. They occur together with encrusting fossils that bear some resemblance to modern foliose fungi or lichens. Further chuntering in the palaeontological community seems inevitable, but the sedimentological observations alone knock one hypothesis on the head: it has been said that the graded bedding common to both major Ediacaran assemblages constitutes evidence for deep marine origins from turbidity currents. But there is further compost in which controversy may thrive, in that Retallack ascribes the repeated palaeosols to glacially controlled sea-level fluctuations: the Newfoundland sequence contains two diamictites interpreted as tillite, one dated at ~583 Ma the other undated but at the top of the sequence.