Abstract Vertically stratified microbial communities of phototrophic bacteria in the upper intertidal zones of the North Sea island of Mellum were investigated. Growth and population dynamics of the cyanobacterial mat were followed over three successive years. It was concluded that the initial colonization of the sandy sediments was by the cyanobacterium Oscillatoria. In well-established mats, however, the dominant organism was Microcoleus chthonoplastes. The observed succession of cyanobacteria during mat development is correlated with nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen fixation is necessary in this low-nutrient environment to ensure colonization by mat-constructing cyanobacteria. Under certain conditions, a red layer of purple sulfur bacteria developed underneath the cyanobacterial mat in which Chromatium and Thiocapsa spp. dominated, but Thiopedia and Ectothiorhodospira spp. have also been observed. Measurements of light penetrating the cyanobacterial mat indicated that sufficient light is available for the photosynthetic growth of purple sulfur bacteria. Profiles of oxygen, sulfide and redox potential within the microbial mat were measured using microelectrodes. Maximum oxygen concentrations, measured at a depth of 0.7 mm, reached levels more than twice the normal air saturation. Dissolved sulfide was not detected by the microelectrodes. Determination of acid-distilled sulfide, however, revealed appreciable amounts of bound sulfide in the mat. Redox profiles measured in the mat led to the conclusion that the upper 10 mm of the sedimentary sequence is in a relatively oxidized state.