There are two common fossil types that begin with “strom” and look roughly alike to the untrained eye. One is the stromatoporoid, which is a calcareous sponge, and the other is the stromatolite, which is a layered structure produced by photosynthetic bacteria. I hadn’t seen them together until our expedition to the Silurian of Estonia last summer. Wooster senior Nick Fedorchuk (’12) collected the specimen above at his outcrop of limestones and dolomites just above the Wenlock/Ludlow Boundary along Soeginina Cliff, Saaremaa. (In the rock sequence Richa Ekka is now studying.) We thought it was simply a stromatolite until he cut it to show that the base was a stromatoporoid.
“Stroma” is Greek for a bed or layer. Both stromatolites and stromatoporoids have horizontally laminated structures. The “lite” in stromatolite means rock, so a stromatolite is literally a “layered rock”. They are accretionary structures made by mostly cyanobacteria that collect and bind fine sediment into thin layers, usually in very shallow waters. Often the bacteria make their own calcareous cement for these laminae as a byproduct of photosynthesis. They’ve been doing this for a long time: the earliest known fossils are 3.5 billion-year-old stromatolites.
Stromatoporoids are very different. The “poroid” refers to their semi-porous skeletal layers, which are separated from each other by minuscule pillars. Their peak of abundance was in the Silurian and Devonian Periods, but they survived all the way up into the Cretaceous. They made significant reefs in the Paleozoic, often more common than the corals back then. We believe that they were a type of sponge (Phylum Porifera) with a thin layer of soft tissue on the exterior layer filter-feeding in the typical sponge manner.
Stromatolites are more common in sediments formed in very shallow, warm marine waters with elevated salinity; stromatoporoids liked more normal marine conditions. Finding the stromatolite on top of the stromatoporoid here means that either the environment changed between the two (shallowing, likely), or that the stromatoporoid was dislodged from more offshore waters during a storm and washed into a shallow lagoon, becoming a substrate for stromatolitic growth.
Curiously, there was a suggestion in 1990 by Kaźmierczak and Kempe that stromatoporoids ARE stromatolites. They pointed out that precipitation features in modern stromatolites can be very complex, producing features that resemble those of ancient stromatoporoids. This idea gained no traction, though, and most paleontologists are satisfied that these two types of “strom” have very different origins.
Akihiro, K. 1989. Deposition and palaeoecology of an Upper Silurian stromatoporoid reef on southernmost Gotland, Sweden. Geological Journal 24: 295-315.
Kaźmierczak, J. and Kempe, S. 1990. Modern cyanobacterial analogs of Paleozoic stromatoporoids. Science 250, no. 4985, pp. 1244-1248.
Lebold, J.G. 2000. Quantitative analysis of epizoans on Silurian stromatoporoids within the Brassfield Formation. Journal of Paleontology 74: 394-403.
Segars, M.T. and Liddell, W.D. 1988. Microhabitat analyses of Silurian stromatoporoids as substrata for epibionts. Palaios 3: 391-403.
Soja, C.M., White, B., Antoshkina, A., Joyce, S., Mayhew, L., Flynn, B. and Gleason, A. 2000. Development and decline of a Silurian stromatolite reef complex, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Palaios 15: 273-292.
Vinn, O. and Wilson, M.A. 2010. Endosymbiotic Cornulites in the Sheinwoodian (Early Silurian) stromatoporoids of Saaremaa, Estonia. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abh., v. 257: p. 13–22.