Morphological adaptations of 3.22 Ga-old tufted microbial mats to Archean coastal habitats (Moodies Group, Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa)

Morphological adaptations of 3.22 Ga-old tufted microbial mats to Archean coastal habitats (Moodies Group, Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa)

Martin Homann, Christoph Heubeck, Alessandro Airo, Michael M. Tice


Microbial life was well established and widespread by the Paleoarchean; however, the degree of evolutionary advancement such as microbial motility, intra- and inter-species interactions, phototropism, or oxygenic photosynthesis by that time remains highly debated. The 3.22 Ga Moodies Group in the Barberton Greenstone Belt (BGB, South Africa) are Earth's oldest well-preserved siliciclastic tidal deposits. They exhibit a unique assemblage of microbial mats, providing an excellent opportunity to decipher the morphological adaptations of microbial communities to different paleoenvironmental settings. The fossil mats are preserved as kerogenous laminations (0.5–1 mm thick) that can be traced laterally for ∼15 km in a ∼1000 m-thick succession of fine- to coarse-grained tidal sandstones and conglomerates. We here present a detailed stratigraphic and depositional facies analysis, documenting the association of the three principal mat morphotypes with specific environmental settings: (1) planar-type in coastal floodplain, (2) wavy-type in intertidal, and (3) tufted-type in upper inter- to supratidal facies. All mat types indicate a flourishing phototrophic biota; moreover, the tufted morphology suggests an intricate level of coordinated growth commonly known from cyanobacterial mats in modern environments.