First Advisor

Scott F. Burns

Date of Publication

Summer 9-30-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.) in Geology






Cyanobacteria -- Yellowstone National Park -- Analysis, Hot springs -- Yellowstone National Park



Physical Description

1 online resource (vii, 103 pages)


Mineral-depositing hydrothermal ecosystems, such as the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, provide an unparalleled opportunity to document how microbial biosignatures form and contribute to the body of evidence indicative of the microbial inhabitants of active hot springs. Mineralization of microbial communities in silica-depositing hot springs can result in the preservation of microbial biofacies in the geologic record. To determine the effects of prolonged aerial exposure on the preservation potential of mid-to-low temperature cyanobacteria dominated microbial communities that are typically permineralized in the siliceous sinter, modern biofacies samples of such communities were collected from the active and inactive parts of Queen's Laundry hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. The strategy of the research was to: (1) perform qualitative and quantitative characterization of structural and morphometric attributes of subaqueous and aerially exposed Calothrix biofacies samples collected from terraces; and (2) determine whether prolonged subaerial exposure affected the fidelity of morphological biosignatures (i.e., biofabrics and microbial cells) in the aerially exposed samples.

To ensure that the permanently subaqueous and aerially exposed samples were comparable, a protocol developed to describe structural and morphological attributes of stromatolites was utilized to characterize the hot spring samples. Morphometric analysis of both types of Calothrix biofacies samples (i.e., partly silicified subaqueous and aerially exposed samples) revealed the presence of: distinct microbially influenced structures; thicker lamina at or near the base of the terraces; the greatest density of microorganisms in microbial structures; and increased microbial structure flatness as height of the microbial structures within the terrace proper increased. These characteristics were also used to provide a means to interpret the environmental conditions within which the terrace structures developed.

To determine whether prolonged subaerial exposure affected the morphological fidelity of the biosignatures in the aerially exposed samples, the microstructure of these samples was studied in detail petrographically. A silica layer defined the boundary between laminae and was referred to as the "capping" silica deposit because it was found to "cap" all of the laminae in the Calothrix biofacies samples. The top most capping silica deposit of the aerially exposed Calothrix biofacies samples was found to be distinctly different from the capping silica deposits in the interior of the same sample and in the partly mineralized subaqueous Calothrix biofacies samples. The aerially exposed capping silica deposit was milky and glassy in appearance and contained fine laminations. The fine laminations were not found in any laminae of the biofacies samples.

Another key finding of the project is a new evaluation of the preservation potential of the Calothrix terrace samples. Petrographic observations revealed that preservation of the morphological fidelity of the laminae and the microstructures within them was significantly higher within the microbial shrub and domical structures in both the partially silicified subaqueous and aerially exposed Calothrix biofacies samples than other microstructure types observed.

In summary, a detailed morphometric characterization protocol confirmed that it is possible to identify similar features in Calothrix biofacies found inside the active part of the hot spring as well as beyond the perimeter (i.e., aerially exposed for ≥ 3 years) at multiple spatial scales; only the top-most capping silica deposit of the aerially exposed samples is altered by subaerial exposure; the preservation potential for Calothrix biofabrics is highest within shrub and domical structures; and morphometric analysis on a variety of Calothrix terraced structures could lend insight into the factor(s) responsible for terrace formation. This research lays the foundation for analyzing similar structures in geologically older rocks and for recognizing how microbial organisms can and likely have influenced terrace formation. The work also suggests that aerial processes can alter such samples and biosignatures within them. It is recommended that additional non-destructive and spatially correlated analytical methods be considered in the search for chemofossils in the sinter surrounding filaments past and present.


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