27th Aug 2013

Living Fossils

Located in Hamelin’s Pool, a shallow area of Shark Bay in Western Australia, these odd formations aren’t rocks—they’re stromatolites, and they were built over millennia by single-celled cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae). 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, a huge bank of seagrass began to block the tidal flow into Hamelin’s Pool, which meant that the water became twice as salty as the open ocean. Animals like snails and chitons that would usually feed on the algae couldn’t survive, so the blue-green algae began to flourish. Gathered in colonies, they trapped sediment with their sticky surface coatings. This sediment reacted with calcium carbonate in the water and formed limestone, essentially creating a living fossil—this limestone is alive, its top surface layer teeming with active cyanobacteria. The limestone builds up slowly at a rate of about 1mm per year. The stromatolites in Shark Bay are estimated to be between 3,000 and 2,000 years old, but they’re similar to life forms in Precambrian times, 3.5 billion years ago, at the dawn of complex organisms. There are over 50 kinds of cyanobacteria in Shark Bay, and one is thought to have descended from an organism that lived nearly 2 million years ago, making it a part of one of the longest biological lineages.

(Image Credit: 1, 2)

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