Masters Theses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science



Major Professor

Linda C. Kah

Committee Members

Christopher M. Fedo, David B. Finkelstein


Macroscopic “carbonaceous” fossils such as Grypania, Katnia, Chuaria, and Tawuia play a critical role in our understanding of biological evolution in the Precambrian and their environmental implications. Unfortunately, understanding of these fossils remains limited by their relative simplicity of form, mode of preservation, and broad taphonomic variability. As a result, debate continues as to even the fundamental taxonomic affinity of the organisms. Megascopic coiled forms (i.e. Grypania and Katnia), for instance, have been interpreted as trace fossils, multicellular algae, prokaryotic filaments, macroscopic bacteria, cyanobacteria, or a transitional form from macroscopic to megascopic bacterial life. Similarly, Chuaria and Tawuia have been interpreted as compressed prokaryotic colonies, algae or algal reproductive stages, and multicellular plant material. Accessibility of new material and increasingly sophisticated means of analysis warrant a new look at these ancient fossils. Understanding the biological affinity of Grypania, in particular, is critical because current opinion is split as to whether these megascopic structures are more likely represent either multicellular bacteria or multicellular algae. Confirmation of either a bacterial or algal affinity would strongly influence fundamental understanding of biospheric evolution, particularly in terms of ocean oxygenation and the availability of bioessential trace metals. Although estimates for the degree of oxygenation required for a Grypania-like multicellular algae are only about 10 % present atmospheric levels (PAL), this estimate is still substantially higher than estimates based on geochemical data suggesting that oxygen levels may not have reached 10% PAL until the latter Neoproterozoic. It has been hypothesized that protracted oxygen of the Proterozoic biosphere may have played a critical role in the availability of redox-sensitive nutrients necessary for bacterial nitrogen fixation and the limiting of eukaryotic evolution. Within this context, our understanding of the taxonomic affinity of Grypania may profoundly affect our understanding of Earth’s biospheric evolution. This thesis provides morphological and geochemical analyses of Grypania spiralis from more than 100 newly collected specimens from the Belt Supergroup for comparison to previously collected specimens from all other known Grypania-bearing localities. Data is used to explore questions regarding the morphology, structural complexity, mode of preservation, and chemistry of fossil material, and to hypothesize on the taxonomic affinity of Grypania spiralis and its implications for biospheric evolution.

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