Old Earth Ministries Online Earth History Curriculum
Presented by Old Earth Ministries (We Believe in an Old Earth...and God!)
This curriculum is presented free of charge for use by homeschooling families and schools.
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Chapter 2 - The Precambrian
Lesson 11: Stromatolites
We have an atmosphere thanks to a little organism that was the only living
organism for the first several billion years of our earth.
(from Greek στρώμα, strōma,
mattress, bed, stratum, and λιθος, lithos,
rock) are layered
structures formed in
shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sedimentary grains
biofilms of microorganisms,
known as blue-green
algae). They include
some of the most ancient records of life on Earth, and are largely
responsible for adding oxygen to earth's early atmosphere.
Chapter 2 - The Precambrian
Modern stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia
Very few ancient stromatolites contain fossilized microbes. While features of some stromatolites are suggestive of biological activity, others possess features that are more consistent with abiotic (non-organic) precipitation. Finding reliable ways to distinguish between biologically-formed and abiotic (non-biological) stromatolites is an active area of research in geology.
Stromatolites were much more abundant
on the planet in Precambrian times. While older, Pre-Cambrian stromatolites in the Siyeh Formation, Glacier
National Park Stromatolites (Pika Formation, Middle Cambrian) near Helen Lake,
Banff National Park, Canada.
Pre-Cambrian stromatolites in the Siyeh Formation, Glacier National Park
Stromatolites (Pika Formation, Middle Cambrian) near Helen Lake, Banff National Park, Canada.
Stromatolites are a major constituent of the fossil record for about the first 3.5 billion years of life on earth, with their abundance peaking about 1,250 million years ago. They subsequently declined in abundance and diversity, which by the start of the Cambrian had fallen to 20% of their peak. The most widely-supported explanation is that stromatolite builders fell victims to grazing creatures (the Cambrian substrate revolution), implying that sufficiently complex organisms were common over 1 billion years ago.
The connection between grazer and stromatolite abundance is well documented in the younger Ordovician evolutionary radiation; stromatolite abundance also increased after the end-Ordovician and end-Permian extinctions decimated marine animals, falling back to earlier levels as marine animals recovered.
While prokaryotic cyanobacteria themselves reproduce asexually through cell division, they were instrumental in priming the environment for the development of more complex eukaryotic organisms. Cyanobacteria are thought to be largely responsible for increasing the amount of oxygen in the primeval earth's atmosphere through their continuing photosynthesis.
Cyanobacteria use water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to create their food. The byproducts of this process are oxygen and calcium carbonate (lime). A layer of mucus often forms over mats of cyanobacterial cells. In modern microbial mats, debris from the surrounding habitat can become trapped within the mucus, which can be cemented together by the calcium carbonate to grow thin laminations of limestone. These laminations can accrete over time, resulting in the banded pattern common to stromatolites. The domal morphology of biological stromatolites is the result of the vertical growth necessary for the continued infiltration of sunlight to the organisms for photosynthesis.
Modern stromatolites are mostly found in hypersaline lakes and marine lagoons where extreme conditions due to high saline levels exclude animal grazing. One such location is Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve, Shark Bay in Western Australia where excellent specimens are observed today, and another is Lagoa Salgada, state of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil, where modern stromatolites can be observed as bioherm (domal type) and beds. Inland stromatolites can also be found in saline waters in Cuatro Ciénegas, a unique ecosystem in the Mexican desert, and in Lake Alchichica, a maar lake in Mexico's Oriental Basin. Modern stromatolites are only known to prosper in an open marine environment in the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas.
Layered spherical growth structures named oncolites are similar to stromatolites, and are also known from the fossil record.
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