Stromatolites – The Earliest Fossils


Stromatolites Definition

Stromatolites are not just rocks. They are storytellers of Earth’s early life, dating back to over 3.5 billion years ago. These layered structures are not only geological wonders but also biological marvels, offering window into both ancient and modern microbial worlds.

What Are Stromatolites?

Stromatolites are layered accretions of microorganisms, primarily cyanobacteria, mixed with sedimentary grains. These formations often occur in shallow water environments. They are one of the earliest forms of life on Earth that existed well before more complex organisms appeared.

Word Origin

The terms “stromatolite” and “stromatolith” come from the Greek words “stroma” or “stromatos” (layered) and “lithos” (rock).

Formation of Stromatolites

Stromatolites form through the trapping, binding, and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms of microorganisms. Mainly, the microorganisms are cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), but sulfate-reducing bacteria and Pseudomonadota (proteobacteria) also form stromatolites. The process begins with the growth of microbial mats. As these microbes photosynthesize, they release sticky compounds that trap and bind sediment particles, which cement together by calcium carbonate precipitated from the water. Over time, these layers accumulate, creating the distinctive banded patterns characteristic of stromatolites.

Are All Stromatolites Fossils?

Not all stromatolites are fossils. Stromatolites fall into two broad categories: fossil stromatolites and living (or modern) stromatolites.

  • Fossil Stromatolites: These are ancient stromatolites that have fossilized over geological time. They are solidified records of microbial activity from the past, some dating back to over 3.5 billion years ago. Fossil stromatolites are invaluable to scientists as they provide crucial insights into the early biosphere and the evolution of life on Earth.
  • Living (Modern) Stromatolites: These are actively forming stromatolites found in certain environments today. They form by the same fundamental process as their ancient counterparts – through the trapping, binding, and cementation of sediment by microbial mats.

Morphology and Features

The morphology of stromatolites is diverse, ranging from columnar and branching forms to stratiform and domal structures. Their size varies widely, from tiny nodules to structures several meters in height. The internal structure of stromatolites is layered, reflecting the growth patterns of the microbial mats and the environmental conditions during formation.

Abiotic vs. Biotic Origins

Determining whether stromatolites are of biotic (living) or abiotic (non-living) origin is challenging. Biotic stromatolites form by the activity of microorganisms, while abiotic ones form through purely physical or chemical processes. The presence of specific microfossils, organic matter, and certain textural features indicate a biotic origin. However, in some cases, telling abiotic and biotic structures apart is challenging.

Stromatolites and the Fossil Record

Stromatolites provide critical evidence for understanding the early history of life on Earth. They are among the oldest known fossils, dating back to the Archaean Eon. The abundance and diversity of stromatolites in the fossil record peaked during the Precambrian and declined with the rise of grazing and burrowing organisms during the Phanerozoic Eon.

Where to See Stromatolites Today

Stromatolites are uncommon today compared to the distant past, but they occur in both saltwater and freshwater locations:

Saline Environments:

  • Shark Bay, Western Australia: Shark Bay is home to some of the most famous and well-studied living stromatolites.
  • Bahamas: The Bahamas are a modern analog to ancient environments.

Freshwater Environments:

  • Pavilion Lake, Canada: This lake has freshwater stromatolites, offering insights into early life.
  • Cuatro Ciénegas Basin, Mexico: This unique ecosystem harbors stromatolites along with a diverse range of endemic species.

Interesting Stromatolite Facts

  • Age Record: Stromatolites hold the record for the oldest known fossils, some of which are around 3.5 billion years old.
  • Oxygen Production: Cyanobacteria in stromatolites played a crucial role in oxygenating Earth’s atmosphere, setting the stage for the evolution of more complex life.
  • Astrobiological Significance: Their simple biological requirements make stromatolites a model for understanding life’s potential on other planets.
  • Environmental Indicators: Stromatolites indicate past environmental conditions, such as water chemistry and climate.

Stromatolites vs Thrombolites and Microbial Mats

Stromatolites, thrombolites, and microbial mats all have microbial origins, but they differ in structure, formation processes, and historical significance.

  • Stromatolites are layered sedimentary formations created by the growth of microbial mats, particularly cyanobacteria, in shallow water environments.
  • Thrombolites are clotted structures that microbial communities form. They are similar to stromatolites, but with a less organized internal structure.
  • Microbial mats are layered biofilms, primarily consisting of bacteria and archaea. These mats are the precursors to stromatolites.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Stromatolites

Here’s a collection of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about stromatolites:

  1. What are stromatolites? Stromatolites are layered sedimentary formations that form from microorganisms and sediment. They are among the oldest known forms of life on Earth.
  2. How old are stromatolites? Stromatolites date back to over 3.5 billion years ago. They provide some of the earliest evidence of life on our planet.
  3. Where do stromatolites occur? Modern stromatolites occur in a few select locations worldwide, including Shark Bay in Western Australia, the Bahamas, and some freshwater environments like Pavilion Lake in Canada.
  4. How do stromatolites form? Stromatolites form through the trapping, binding, and cementation of sedimentary grains by the biofilms of microorganisms. This process occurs over long periods, with layers accumulating gradually.
  5. Why are stromatolites important? Stromatolites are crucial for understanding the early history of life on Earth. They also played a significant role in oxygenating the planet’s atmosphere, paving the way for more complex life forms.
  6. Are stromatolites still alive? Some stromatolites, like those in Shark Bay, are active and still growing, while many others in the fossil record are remnants of ancient ecosystems.
  7. What’s the difference between a stromatolite and a thrombolite? Stromatolites have a layered, laminated structure, while thrombolites have a clotted, non-laminated internal structure. Both form by microbial activity.
  8. Can stromatolites occur in freshwater? Yes, stromatolites form in both saline and freshwater environments, although they are more common in salty, marine conditions.
  9. How do stromatolites contribute to our understanding of extraterrestrial life? Stromatolites demonstrate how life exists and thrives in extreme conditions, providing a model for searching for life on other planets.
  10. Are stromatolites endangered? Some modern stromatolite locations are vulnerable due to environmental changes and human activities. Conservation efforts are important for protecting these ancient life forms.

References

  • Duda, J-P.; Van Kranendonk, M.J.; et al. (2016). “A Rare Glimpse of Paleoarchean Life: Geobiology of an Exceptionally Preserved Microbial Mat Facies from the 3.4 Ga Strelley Pool Formation, Western Australia”. PLOS One. 11 (1): e0147629. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0147629
  • Farías, María E.; Rascovan, Nicolás; et al. (2013). “The discovery of Stromatolites developing at 3570 m above sea level in a high-altitude volcanic lake Socompa, Argentinean Andes”. PLOS ONE. 8 (1): 15. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053497
  • Feldmann, M.; McKenzie, J.A. (1998). “Stromatolite-thrombolite associations in a modern environment, Lee Stocking Island, Bahamas”. PALAIOS. 13 (2): 201–212. doi:10.2307/3515490
  • Grotzinger, John P.; Rothman, Daniel H. (1996). “An abiotic model for stromatolite morphogenesis”. Nature. 383 (6599): 423–425. doi:10.1038/383423a0
  • Seong-Joo, Lee; Browne, Kathleen M.; Golubic, Stjepko (2000). in Riding, Robert E.; Awramik, Stanley M. (eds.), “On Stromatolite Lamination”. Microbial Sediments. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. pp. 16–24. ISBN 978-3-642-08275-7. doi:10.1007/978-3-662-04036-2_3