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ABSTRACT

We report a novel weathering mechanism in South African sandstone formations, where cryptoendolithic cyanobacteria induce weathering by substrate alkalization during photosynthesis. As a result, the upper rock part is loosened and then eroded away by physical forces such as wind, water, trampling. This special type of ‘exfoliation’ is widely distributed and affects the geomorphology of whole sandstone mountain ranges and outcrops across several biomes. We show, that this weathering type is initiated by bioalkalization because of the photosynthesis of cryptoendolithic (i.e. those organisms living in small tight open spaces between the sand grains) cyanobacteria causing pH values high enough to enhance silica solution in the cryptoendolithic zone. As modern cyanobacteria are the initial photoautotrophic colonizers of bare rocks in arid and semiarid landscapes, it is possible that they may also have played a significant role in shaping sandstone landscapes in the geological past.