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Abstract

Microbial earths are communities of microscopic organisms living in well-drained soil. Unlike aquatic microbial mats and stromatolites, microbial earths are sheltered from ultraviolet radiation, desiccation, and other surficial hazards within soil cracks and grain interstices. Currently, such ecosystems are best known in small areas of unusually cold, hot, or saline soils unfavorable to multicellular plants and animals. During the Precambrian, microbial earths may have been more widespread, but few examples have been reported. This review outlines a variety of features of modern microbial earths that can be used to distinguish them from aquatic microbial mats and stromatolites in the fossil record. Microbial earths have vertically oriented organisms intimately admixed with minerals of the soil, whereas microbial mats are laminated and detachable from their mineral substrate as flakes, skeins, and rollups. Microbial earths have irregular relief, healed desiccation cracks, and pressure ridges, whereas microbial mats have flexuous, striated domes, and tufts. Microbial earths form deep soil profiles with downward variations in oxidation, clay abundance, and replacive nodular subsurface horizons, whereas microbial mats form as caps to unweathered, chemically reduced sedimentary layers. Microbial earths develop increasingly differentiated soil profiles through time, whereas microbial mats build upward in laminar to domed increments. Microbial earths are found in nonmarine sedimentary facies, whereas microbial mats form in lacustrine, floodplain, and marine sedimentary facies. Microbial mats and stromatolites are known back to the oldest suitably preserved sedimentary rocks in the 3458 Ma Apex Chert and 3430 Ma Strelley Pool Formation (respectively) of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The geological antiquity of microbial earths extends back to 2760 Ma in the Mount Roe paleosol of the Hamersley Group near Whim Creek, Western Australia.

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