Mechanisms of microtunneling in rock substrates: distinguishing endolithic biosignatures from abiotic microtunnels


Corresponding author: Nicola McLoughlin. Tel.: +47 55583440; fax: +47 55583660; e-mail:


Rock-dwelling, endolithic micro-organisms can create tubular microcavities (TMCs) by the dissolution of rock substrates. Microtunnels can also conceivably be formed by abiotic processes, and collectively, these structures are here termed tubular microcavities. A textural record of life in subseafloor environments is provided by biological TMCs, and it is imperative to distinguish these from abiological tunnels. To this end, the morphologies and petrographic context of tunnels formed by chemical solution, physical abrasion, and biological processes are here described. Biological TMCs in volcanic glass are restricted to sites that were connected to early fluid circulation. Their shapes, distribution, and the absence of intersections exclude an origin by chemical dissolution of pre-existing heterogeneities such as, radiation damage trails, gas-escape structures, or fluid inclusion trails. Rather their characteristics are best explained by microbial dissolution, involving perhaps, cellular extensions that provide a mechanism of localizing and directing microtunnel formation as observed in terrestrial soils. Biological TMCs are contrasted with ambient inclusion trails (AITs) found in cherts and authigenic minerals. These differ in exhibiting longitudinal striae, a constant diameter, and polygonal cross-section, sometimes with terminal inclusions. The origin(s) of AITs remain unclear but they are hypothesized to form by migration of crystalline or organic inclusions in sealed substrates, in contrast to biotic TMCs that form in open systems. We present diagnostic morphological and petrographic criteria for distinguishing these different types of TMCs. Moreover, we argue that AIT-type processes are not viable in volcanic glass because of the absence of crystalline millstones, localized chemical solution agents, and elevated fluid pressures, necessary to drive this process.