Oldest Multicellular Animals: Nilpena, South Australia (unguided VFT)

Wendy Taylor, Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus

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Deep in the hills of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, fossils of the earliest multicellular animals, called the Ediacara fauna, appear in the rock record and evolve in three distinct stages. Then suddenly, just before the Cambrian Explosion they universally disappear. Take the journey and learn what is known about them, why they died out, and what mysteries remain.

This is an unguided virtual field trip, but also contains five optional adaptive learning labs. A hands-on Experience Box that can be used with the VFT and labs (Bizarre Animals of South Australia) is available to local teachers.

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This resource is designed for use in freshman introductory geoscience courses (intro to physical geology, historical geology, paleontology), but can also be used in a wide array of formal and informal educational settings. As an unguided virtual field trip (VFT), it features self-guided or free exploration that gives teachers flexibility to customize the learning outcomes. It contains five adaptive learning labs that are optional to enhance the activity.

For teachers based in the Phoenix area, a hands-on classroom kit (Bizarre Animals of South Australia) that contains real fossils and sedimentary rocks, fossil casts of Ediacarans, DVDs, posters and books, is available to use with this VFT.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be familiar with the concepts of geologic or deep time, weathering and erosion, the rock cycle, sedimentary rocks and sedimentation, and the basic types of fossils.

How the activity is situated in the course

This resource is a stand-alone activity that is designed to be used after students have been introduced to the concepts of geologic or deep time, weathering and erosion, the rock cycle, sedimentary rocks and sedimentation, and the basic types of fossils.

Activity Length

This activity involves free exploration so its duration is set by the teacher. Exploration of the virtual field site with its embedded media which includes still images of the fossils, videos and an interactive gigapixel images, is estimated to take about 30 minutes. There are five optional adaptive learning labs that are available (pop-out windows within the VFT). It is estimated to take two class periods to go through them.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

This virtual field trip (VFT) with online (optional) adaptive learning labs explores fossils of some of the earliest complex animals. This unguided VFT gives teachers the opportunity to design and customize activity goals to fit their curricula. Teachers in the Phoenix area also have the option to borrow the hands-on classroom kit to use in tandem with the VFT.

There are five optional labs included with this VFT that focus on the following topics:
Lab 1.1: Traveling back in deep time; the early Earth and the emergence of life
Lab 2.1: Exploring the rocks at Nilpena; deposition and formation of sedimentary rocks
Lab 3.1: Reconstructing an Ediacaran seafloor; microbial mats and ancient environments
Lab 4.1: Investigating the Ediacara biota; Earth's earliest complex animals and what they were like
Lab 5.1: The disappearance of the Ediacarans; extinction and Cambrian explosion

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Learners explore the virtual environments and make observations to help them understand what the first complex animals were like, how they were fossilized and what they reveal about early ecosystems.

Other skills goals for this activity

Make field observations, compare modern and ancient animals, arrange events in a chronological order, recognize patterns.

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity is accessible at https://vft.asu.edu/ through the Center for Education Through eXploration (https://etx.asu.edu/) at Arizona State University. They build adaptive digital learning experiences for K-12 education that engage learners in virtual environments and bring Earth and space science to life.

Technology Needs

Real-time Internet access is required to view this VFT. We recommend the use of the browsers Google Chrome or Firefox for the best results. It is not optimized for viewing on mobile devices.


There are no embedded assessments associated with this self-guided VFT and it is up to the teacher to design an assessment tool to meet whatever learning outcomes they specify. However, if the pop-up labs (1-5) are used, students will receive a score at the end of each lab.

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