10 May 2019

A funny thing happened on the way to IKEA

| Andrea Wild

Canberra has many redeeming qualities, but no number of bright sunny days, finely manicured public spaces or cake-topped milkshakes can shake one sad, simple fact: we have no beach.

However Canberra was once under the sea. Before Gillard v Rudd, before Rome fell, before dinosaurs, Canberra was a tropical paradise where warm waters lapped the shores. But that was 430 million years ago. All that’s left today is fossil evidence of a beach.

This beach was home to the brachiopods of Woolshed Creek. These little marine shell creatures, or their fossilised remains, have survived almost half a billion years of geological turmoil and the chaos of recent road building and are nestled in the Woolshed Creek Fossil Site. The mudstones and siltstones of this site cover half a hectare and the best spot to find fossils is just under Woolshed Creek Bridge.

The closest carpark to Woolshed Creek is probably IKEA’s. Tempting as it may be to transform your home into a Nordic wonderland through the miracle of the flat pack while munching on ginger biscuits from half a world away, real adventure awaits in the opposite direction.

Stroll through the grass toward Pialligo, with the airport on your left and the old Georgian-style barn on your right, turn right at Fairbairn Ave and head down underneath the bridge.

There you will find a troll. I mean, interpretive signage and rocks. But look closer and embedded in the rocks you’ll find little shell creatures, slightly distorted by the passage of time, or more specifically by compaction and tectonic forces. Quite recognisable, even to untrained eyes (such as mine), most of the brachiopods you’ll be looking at belong to a species called Atrypa duntroonensis, no doubt named for Duntroon, the home of Robert Campbell, who took up land here in 1825.

The careful fossil observer might also find trilobites, corals, gastropods, bivalves and a star-shaped bryozoan. The site is famous as the location of the first fossils from the Silurian Period (443 to 419 million years ago) to be recorded in Australia. They were collected from Woolshed Creek in 1844 by the Reverend W B Clarke and, sadly, later destroyed by fire. The site was also significant in interpreting time scales of earth’s geological past.

Woolshed Creek Fossil Site is protected under the Heritage Act in the hope that after surviving almost half a billion years, these fossils will also survive us. That means no collecting and no ‘excessive pedestrian traffic on the site’. Please don’t all go at once and under no circumstances reveal who sent you.

On second thought, maybe you should go to IKEA instead of walking through long grass risking snake bite, dodging construction equipment and feeling sad that you’re half a billion years late to the beach. IKEA sells beach towels, beach chairs, beach bags – surely a much better experience.

If you’re interested in the glorious geological detail of the Woolshed Creek fossil site, check out the research paper by Desmond L. Strusz of the Australian National University.

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