How Microbial Mats Help Paleontologists
Most fossils preserve only the hard parts of organisms, e.g. shells. The rare cases where soft-bodied fossils are preserved (the remains of soft-bodied organisms and also of the soft parts of organisms for which only hard parts such as shells are usually found) are extremely valuable because they provide information about organisms that are hardly ever fossilized and much more information than is usually available about those for which only the hard parts are usually preserved. Microbial mats help to preserve soft-bodied fossils by:
- Capturing corpses on the sticky surfaces of mats and thus preventing them from floating or drifting away.
- Physically protecting them from being eaten by scavengers and broken up by burrowing animals, and protecting fossil-bearing sediments from erosion. For example the speed of water current required to erode sediment bound by a mat is 30 - 20 times greater than the speed required to erode a bare sediment.
- Preventing or reducing decay both by physically screening the remains from decay-causing bacteria and by creating chemical conditions that are hostile to decay-causing bacteria.
- Preserving tracks and burrows by protecting them from erosion. Many trace fossils date from significantly earlier than the body fossils of animals that are thought to have been capable of making them and thus improve paleontologists' estimates of when animals with these capabilities first appeared.
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