Extensive microbial mats colonize sandy tidal flats that form along the coasts of today's Earth. The microbenthos (mainly cyanobacteria) respond to the prevailing physical sediment dynamics by biostabilization, baffling and trapping, as well as binding. This biotic–physical interaction gives rise to characteristic microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) that differ greatly from both purely physical structures and from stromatolites. Actualistic studies of the MISS on modern tidal flats have been shown to be the key for understanding equivalent fossil structures that occur in tidal and shelf sandstones of all Earth ages. However, until now the fossil record of Archean MISS has been poor, and relatively few specimens have been found.
This paper describes a study location that displays a unique assemblage with a multitude of exceptionally preserved MISS in the 2.9-Ga-old Pongola Supergroup, South Africa. The ‘Nhlazatse Section’ includes structures such as ‘erosional remnants and pockets’, ‘multidirected ripple marks’, ‘polygonal oscillation cracks’, and ‘gas domes’. Optical and geochemical analyses support the biogenicity of microscopic textures such as filamentous laminae or ‘orientated grains’. Textures resembling filaments are lined by iron oxide and hydroxides, as well as clay minerals. They contain organic matter, whose isotope composition is consistent with carbon of biological origin.
The ancient tidal flats of the Nhlazatse Section record four microbial mat facies that occur in modern tidal settings as well. We distinguish endobenthic and epibenthic microbial mats, including planar, tufted, and spongy subtypes. Each microbial mat facies is characterized by a distinct set of MISS, and relates to a typical tidal zone. The microbial mat structures are preserved in situ, and are consistent with similar features constructed today by benthic cyanobacteria. However, other mat-constructing microorganisms also could have formed the structures in the Archean tidal flats.