Get access

Microbes and mass extinctions: paleoenvironmental distribution of microbialites during times of biotic crisis


Corresponding author: S. A. Mata. Tel.: (213) 821-6290; fax: (213) 740-8801; e-mail:


Widespread development of microbialites characterizes the substrate and ecological response during the aftermath of two of the ‘big five’ mass extinctions of the Phanerozoic. This study reviews the microbial response recorded by macroscopic microbial structures to these events to examine how extinction mechanism may be linked to the style of microbialite development. Two main styles of response are recognized: (i) the expansion of microbialites into environments not previously occupied during the pre-extinction interval and (ii) increases in microbialite abundance and attainment of ecological dominance within environments occupied prior to the extinction. The Late Devonian biotic crisis contributed toward the decimation of platform margin reef taxa and was followed by increases in microbialite abundance in Famennian and earliest Carboniferous platform interior, margin, and slope settings. The end-Permian event records the suppression of infaunal activity and an elimination of metazoan-dominated reefs. The aftermath of this mass extinction is characterized by the expansion of microbialites into new environments including offshore and nearshore ramp, platform interior, and slope settings. The mass extinctions at the end of the Triassic and Cretaceous have not yet been associated with a macroscopic microbial response, although one has been suggested for the end-Ordovician event. The case for microbialites behaving as ‘disaster forms’ in the aftermath of mass extinctions accurately describes the response following the Late Devonian and end-Permian events, and this may be because each is marked by the reduction of reef communities in addition to a suppression of bioturbation related to the development of shallow-water anoxia.