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Microbialite resurgence after the Late Ordovician extinction


Microbialites, including biogenic stromatolites, thrombolites and dendrolites, were formed by various microbial mats that trapped and bound sediments or formed the locus of mineral precipitation1. Microbialites were common and diverse during the Proterozoic2,3,4, but declined in abundance and morphological diversity when multicellular life diversified during the Cambrian Radiation. A second decline occurred during the Ordovician Radiation of marine animals, and from then until the present microbialites have been confined largely to high-stress environments where multicellular organisms are rare. The microbialite declines in the Phanerozoic are attributed to disruption of the mats by animals2,5,6. A resurgence of stromatolite abundance and size during reduced animal diversity after the Permian extinction7 has been documented anecdotally. Here we show, with statistical support, that a microbialite resurgence also occurred after the Late Ordovician extinction event in western North America. The resurgences were associated with loss of mat-inhibiting animals, providing insights into shallow-water community structures after extinction events.

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Figure 1: Palaeogeographic map of lowest Silurian (sequence S1).
Figure 2: Microbialites from sequence S2 in the southern Lakeside Mountains, Utah.
Figure 3: Bootstrapping test to determine the number of large microbial domes expected in sequences S1 and S2.


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J. Awe was an astute volunteer during four summers of fieldwork; and C. Morse provided statistical advice. The research was supported by National Science Foundation grants to P.M.S. and M.E.H. This is a contribution to IGCP Project 503.

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Correspondence to Peter M. Sheehan.

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Sheehan, P., Harris, M. Microbialite resurgence after the Late Ordovician extinction. Nature 430, 75–78 (2004).

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