Stromatolites (/stroʊˈmætəlaɪts, strə–/) or stromatoliths (from Greek στρώμα, strōma, mattress, bed, stratum, and λίθος, lithos, rock) are layered bio-chemical accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms (microbial mats) ofmicroorganisms, especially cyanobacteria. Fossilized stromatolites provide ancient records of life on Earth by these remains, which might date from more than 3.5 billion years. Lichen stromatolites are a proposed mechanism of formation of some kinds of layered rock structure that is formed above water, where rock meets air, by repeated colonization of the rock by endolithic lichens.
Stromatolites are a major constituent of the fossil record of the first forms of life on earth. The earliest fossils date to 3.5 billion years ago. They peaked about 1.25 billion years ago and subsequently declined in abundance and diversity, so that by the start of the Cambrian they had fallen to 20% of their peak. The most widely supported explanation is that stromatolite builders fell victim to grazing creatures (the Cambrian substrate revolution); this theory implies that sufficiently complex organisms were common over 1 billion years ago.
Proterozoic stromatolite microfossils (preserved by permineralization in silica) include Cyanobacteria and possibly some forms of the eukaryote chlorophytes (that is, green algae). One genus of stromatolite very common in the geologic record is Collenia.
The connection between grazer and stromatolite abundance is well documented in the youngerOrdovician evolutionary radiation; stromatolite abundance also increased after the end-Ordovician andend-Permian extinctions decimated marine animals, falling back to earlier levels as marine animals recovered. Fluctuations in metazoan population and diversity may not have been the only factor in the reduction in stromatolite abundance. Factors such as the chemistry of the environment may have been responsible for changes.
While prokaryotic cyanobacteria reproduce asexually through cell division, they were instrumental in priming the environment for the evolutionary development of more complex eukaryotic organisms.Cyanobacteria (as well as extremophile Gammaproteobacteria) are thought to be largely responsible for increasing the amount of oxygen in the primeval earth’s atmosphere through their continuingphotosynthesis. Cyanobacteria use water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to create their food. A layer ofmucus 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. Layered spherical growth structures termed oncolites are similar to stromatolites and are also known from the fossil record. Thrombolites are poorly laminated or non-laminated clotted structures formed by cyanobacteria, common in the fossil record and in modern sediments.
The Zebra River Canyon area of the Kubis platform in the deeply dissected Zaris Mountains of south western Namibia provides an extremely well exposed example of the thrombolite-stromatolite-metazoan reefs that developed during the Proterozoic period, the stromatolites here being better developed in updip locations under conditions of higher current velocities and greater sediment influx.