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Geobiology. 2012 Sep;10(5):402-23. doi: 10.1111/j.1472-4669.2012.00332.x. Epub 2012 May 21.

Thermally-induced structural and chemical alteration of organic-walled microfossils: an experimental approach to understanding fossil preservation in metasediments.

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Department of Geological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA.


The identification and confirmation of bona fide Archean-Paleoproterozoic microfossils can prove to be a challenging task, further compounded by diagenetic and metamorphic histories. While structures of likely biological origin are not uncommon in Precambrian rocks, the search for early fossil life has been disproportionately focused on lesser thermally altered rocks, typically greenschist or lower-grade metamorphism. Recently, however, an increasing number of inferred micro- and macrofossils have been reported from higher-grade metasediments, prompting us to experimentally test and quantify the preservability of organic-walled microfossils over varying durations of controlled heating and under two differing redox conditions. Because of their relatively low-intensity natural thermal alteration, acritarchs from the Mesoproterozoic Ruyang Group were chosen as subjects for experimental heating at approximately 500°C, with durations ranging from 1 to 250 days and in both oxic (normal present day conditions) and anoxic conditions. Upon extraction, the opacity, reflectivity, color, microchemistry, and microstructures of the heated acritarchs were characterized using optic microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, Raman spectroscopy, and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy. The results differ for acritarchs prepared under oxic vs. anoxic conditions, with the anoxic replicates surviving experimental heating longer and retaining biological morphologies better, despite an increasing degree of carbonization with continuous heating. Conversely, the oxic replicates show aggressive degradation. In conjunction with fossils from high-grade metasediments, our data illustrate the preservational potential of organic-walled microfossils subjected to metamorphism in reducing conditions, offer insights into the search for microfossils in metasediments, and help to elucidate the influence of time on the carbonization/graphitization processes during thermal alteration.

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