600 Million Years

Illustration showing animals that lived from 635 million years–2.6 million years ago

Victoria evolves

This website provides more information about some of featured exhibits in 600 Million Years: Victoria evolves. Explore the geological time scale and and learn more about the plants, animals and environments of Victoria over the last 600 million years.

600 Million Years: Victoria evolves is now showing in the Science and Life Gallery at Melbourne Museum. Visit What's On for more events at Melbourne Museum.

Ediacaran

635–542 million years ago

Life evolves in the sea

Ediacaran – the geological period when the first clearly multicellular life appears in the fossil record.

It is hard to imagine our planet without animal life. Yet for most of the Earth’s existence the only kind of life has been single-celled organisms like bacteria. After some of these evolved the ability to photosynthesise, they slowly transformed the Earth’s atmosphere over billions of years by producing oxygen. An atmosphere with higher levels of oxygen set the stage for a revolutionary change to life – the development of bodies made of many cells.

The Ediacara Hills in the Flinders Ranges have given their name to the Ediacaran – the geological period when the first clearly multicellular life appears in the fossil record. It is the only geological period defined by an Australian site.

The earliest fossils of these multi-celled animals are preserved in rocks that are about 575 million years old. These animals had no hard shells or skeletons, and the impressions left by their soft bodies are difficult to interpret. There is much scientific debate about what kinds of organisms they were, but most of them were probably not the ancestors of any animals living today.

During the Ediacaran period, the world looked very different from today – there was a single giant continent surrounded by an enormous sea. Areas of what would become Australia were part of this continent and were in the northern hemisphere near the equator. The eastern coast of this ancient continent ran through what is now South Australia. If you travelled back in time you would not be able to find ‘Victoria’ as dry land at all.

Kimberella – an early mollusc?

(kim-burr-el-a)

Model and fossil of Kimberella
  • The 'shell' was up to 15 cm long, 5–7 cm wide, and was probably up to 3–4 cm high.
  • This fossil of Kimberella was discovered in South Australia.

Known initially from the Ediacara Hills in South Australia, where the first specimens were found in the 1940s, fossils of this animal have since been discovered near the White Sea in northern Russia. Kimberella is the first known bilatarian – an animal with a front end and a back end – but beyond that it’s not clear what sort of animal it was. It has some features similar to a group of molluscs called monoplacophorans. It lived on the sea floor. Its shell was probably stiff, yet flexible, and was not mineralised.

Charnia – a frond-shaped organism

(char-nee-a)

Model and fossil of Charnia
  • Charnia was about 15.5 cm high
  • This fossil of Charnia was found in South Australia

Charnia belongs to a group of frond-shaped organisms called the rangeomorphs. This group is now entirely extinct and their fossilised impressions have been interpreted as algae or sea pens. Rangeomorphs had no obvious mouth and probably fed by absorbing dissolved organic matter or filtering microorganisms from the water. 

Charnia is a relatively common fossil from this period and is known from a variety of Ediacaran aged localities around the world. It may have lived in deeper water, attached to the sea floor.

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