Geoconservation of ancient Pilbara stromatolite fossils as a multifunctional landscape

Fletcher, Clare1, Van Kranendonk, Martin J.2, Metternicht, G.3, Walter, M. R4.

1University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 2Australian Centre for Astrobiology, Sydney, Australia, 3University of New South Wales School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science, Sydney, Australia, 4Emeritus Professor, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

The ancient (3.48 billion year old) stromatolite fossils of Western Australia’s Pilbara region constitute the oldest convincing evidence of life on Earth found to date. These fossils offer a unique insight into the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe. There are six key sites for ancient life in the Pilbara, mostly concentrated around the North Pole Dome geological region. Since the discovery of such ancient and well-preserved stromatolite fossils in 1980, they have become a sought-after item for indiscriminate collectors to the point where the original site (Dunlop) no longer exists. 

Due to this indiscriminate collection, various methods of conservation have been recommended over the years. In 1987 a Geological Survey of WA report recommended that the North Pole Dome fossils were placed on the Register of National Estate (henceforth RNE) (now the National and Commonwealth Heritage Lists). The site was also placed on an indicative list for UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1996. Whilst the sites of Buick and Awramik were registered on the RNE, the Register was closed in 2007, and so the legal conservation status of these sites was lost, and they were once again left unconserved.

Currently the six sites are State Geoheritage Reserves vested in the Minister for Mines and Petroleum. While this affords some protections such as requiring approval before visiting these sites, it has not prevented collection of material from the sites. Mining licenses can also be granted for the collection of materials from these sites. The conservation of these sites is complicated by the surrounding lands being either Crown Land or pastoral lease (depending on the site). Other stakeholders include the Nyamal people, the community of Marble Bar, NASA, the European Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, and others.

The vision for these sites is both geoconservation and on-the-ground management that prevents further theft of the fossils and facilitates learning and tourism in the area. We have petitioned the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions to add the North Pole Dome sites to Meentheena for consideration under the WA Government’s Plan For Our Parks initiative which works concurrently with an Indigenous Ranger program. Our vision also includes a combined scientific research and ranger station, that can be used for site visits by space agencies, universities, schools, and potentially become a visitor information and discovery centre combining science on the origin of life and Indigenous history and tellings.

The type of conservation effort to be pursued is yet to be determined. While both National Heritage listing and World Heritage listing are appropriate for the site because of its universal importance, the timeframe of achieving either of these as well as the additional legal protections afforded need to be considered before committing to either effort. Public-private partnerships are also to be considered alongside conservation efforts. While different conservation avenues are being explored public-private partnerships will allow for the vision for geoconservation of the North Pole Dome stromatolite fossils to be realised. 


Clare Fletcher is an MPhil student at UNSW researching the best method of conserving the North Pole Dome stromatolite fossils.

Martin Van Kranendonk and Graciela Metternicht are both supervisors on this project. Malcolm Walter was one of the people who originally described the stromatolite fossils.

About the GSA

The Geological Society of Australia was established as a non-profit organisation in 1952 to promote, advance and support Earth sciences in Australia.

As a broadly based professional society that aims to represent all Earth Science disciplines, the GSA attracts a wide diversity of members working in a similarly broad range of industries.