Remarkably preserved tephra from the 3430 Ma Strelley Pool Formation, Western Australia: Implications for the interpretation of Precambrian microfossils

D. Wacey, M. Saunders, C. Kong

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The ∼3430 Ma Strelley Pool Formation (SPF), Pilbara, Western Australia contains some of the most diverse microfossil evidence for early life on Earth. Here we report an assemblage of tephra (scoria, tubular pumice, plus vesicular and non-vesicular volcanic glass shards) from two stratigraphic levels in the SPF, including morphotypes that closely resemble previously described microfossils from this unit and elsewhere. Clasts of scoria are characterised by numerous spheroidal vesicles, with subordinate eye- and lens-shaped morphotypes, commonly lined with anatase (TiO2) and small amounts of organic material. Their diameters range from 5–180 μm with 80% in the 10–50 μm range. Fragments of tubular pumice are also lined with anatase +/− carbon and have tube diameters of 5–15 μm. Other volcanic ejecta particles include a multitude of sub-angular shard particles with or without vesicles, plus more rounded vase-shaped, eye-shaped, and hair-like morphologies; once again, most of these are coated by anatase +/− carbon and are several tens of micrometres in size. Many of the tephra fragments are now entirely silicified with no compositional difference between the former volcanic glass, the vesicle infill and the clast matrix. However, some examples retain a partial aluminosilicate composition, either as a vesicle infilling phase or as isolated lath-like grains within the formerly glassy groundmass. Isolated occurrences of some of these tephra morphotypes strongly resemble simple microbial morphologies including pairs and clusters of cells (cf. scoria), filamentous microbes (cf. tubular pumice) and larger sheaths/cysts (cf. sub-rounded glass shards). Furthermore, some tephra-containing clasts occur in a SPF sandstone unit that hosts previously described microfossils, while others are interbedded with chert layers from which microfossils have also been described. In light of our new volcanogenic data, we evaluate the robustness of previous microfossil evidence from the SPF in the East Strelley greenstone belt. We find that the majority of previously illustrated microfossils from this greenstone belt possess multiple features that are consistent with a biological interpretation and are unlikely to be volcanogenic, but at least one previously illustrated specimen is here reinterpreted as volcanic in origin. The importance of this work is that it serves to highlight the common occurrence of volcanogenic microstructures resembling biological fossils (i.e. pseudo-fossils) in Archean environments that are habitable for life. Such structures have until now been largely overlooked in the assessment of putative Precambrian microfossils. Our data show that tephra-derived microstructures should be considered as a null hypothesis in future evaluations of potential signs of life on the early Earth, or on other planets.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-43
Number of pages11
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2018


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