AskDefine | Define stromatolite

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  1. A rock-like structure built by cyanobacteria.

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Extensive Definition

Stromatolites (from Greek strōma, mattress, bed, stratum, and lithos, rock) are layered accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding, and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms of microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria (commonly known as blue-green algae).


A variety of stromatolite morphologies exist including conical, stratiform, branching, domal, and columnar types. Stromatolites occur widely in the fossil record of the Precambrian, but are rare today. 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, Archean fossil remains are presumed to be colonies of single-celled blue-green bacteria, younger (that is, Proterozoic) fossils may be primordial forms of the eukaryote chlorophytes (that is, green algae). One genus of stromatolite very common in the geologic record is Collenia. The earliest stromatolite of confirmed microbial origin dates to .
Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Centre for Astrobiology have reported biologic stromatolites 3.5 billion years old, which imply a much earlier date, and a less-extreme environment, for the first fossilized evidence of life on earth than previously accepted.
Prior to 2.4 billion years ago, the earth's atmosphere was rich in carbon dioxide. However, the Precambrian air lacked the oxygen that sustains the complex multicellular life that has evolved since the "Cambrian explosion". 540Ma. Stromatolites in the fossil record decline sharply in both diversity and number during the late Proterozoic eon, although they are present, but not common, in Paleozoic era strata. Today, stromatolites are quite uncommon in marine environments, and thus are called "living fossils."
Their former abundance may be because there were no burrowing or grazing animals back during the Precambrian to destabilize sediments and consume growing microbial mats, thereby favoring the preservation of these microbialites. Also, changing chemical conditions in the ocean during this time could be responsible for the precipitation of non-biological stromatolites through the growth of tiny crystals.
While prokaryotic cyanobacteria themselves reproduce asexually through cell division, they were instrumental in priming the environment for the evolutionary 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 de Janeiro, Brazil, where modern stromatolites can be observed as bioherm (domal type) and beds. Fresh-water stromatolites can be found in Cuatro Ciénegas, a unique ecosystem in the Mexican desert.
Layered spherical growth structures similar to stromatolites, named oncolites, are also known from the fossil record.


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stromatolite in Czech: Stromatolit
stromatolite in German: Stromatolith
stromatolite in Spanish: Estromatolito
stromatolite in French: Stromatolithe
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stromatolite in Croatian: Stromatolit
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stromatolite in Japanese: ストロマトライト
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stromatolite in Slovak: Stromatolit
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stromatolite in Chinese: 疊層石
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