Resolving MISS conceptions and misconceptions: A geological approach to sedimentary surface textures generated by microbial and abiotic processes

Neil Davies, Alex Liu, Martin Gibling, Randall Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

107 Citations (Scopus)
434 Downloads (Pure)


The rock record contains a rich variety of sedimentary surface textures on siliciclastic sandstone, siltstone and mudstone bedding planes. In recent years, an increasing number of these textures have been attributed to surficial microbial mats at the time of deposition, resulting in their classification as microbially induced sedimentary structures, orMISS. Research into MISS has developed at a rapid rate, resulting in a number of misconceptions in the literature. Here, we attempt to rectify theseMISS misunderstandings. The first part of this paper surveys the stratigraphic and environmental range of reported MISS, revealing that contrary to popular belief there are more reported MISS-bearing rock units of Phanerozoic than Precambrian age. Furthermore, MISS exhibit a panenvironmental and almost continuous record since the Archean. Claims for the stratigraphic restriction of MISS to intervals prior to the evolution of grazing organisms or after mass extinction events, as well as claims for the environmental restriction of MISS, appear to result from sampling bias. In the second part of the paper we suggest that raised awareness of MISS has come at the cost of a decreasing appreciation of abiotic processes that may create morphologically similar features. By introducing the umbrella term ‘sedimentary surface textures’, of which MISS are one subset, we suggest a practical methodology for classifying such structures in the geological record. We illustrate how elucidating the formative mechanisms of ancient sedimentary surface textures usually requires consideration of a suite of sedimentological evidence from surrounding strata. Resultant interpretations, microbial or non-microbial, should be couched within a reasonable degree of uncertainty. This approach recognizes that morphological similarity alone does not constitute scientific proof of a common origin, and reinstates a passive descriptive terminology for sedimentary surface textures that cannot be achieved with the current MISS lexicon. It is hoped that this new terminology will reduce the number of overly sensational and misleading claims of MISS occurrence, and permit the means to practically separate initial observation from interpretation. Furthermore, this methodology offers a scientific approach that appreciates the low likelihood of conclusively identifying microbial structures from visual appearance alone, informing the search for true MISS in Earth's geological record and potentially on other planetary bodies such as Mars.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)210-246
Number of pages37
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Early online date15 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • Microbial induced sedimentary structures
  • Siliciclastic
  • Microbial mats
  • Sedimentary structures
  • Precambrian
  • Palaeozoic
  • Ediacaran
  • Cambrian
  • Permian
  • Triassic
  • Mass extinction
  • Mars
  • Kinneyia
  • Wrinkle structures
  • Runzelmarken
  • Adhesion ripples
  • Synaeresis cracks
  • Raindrop impressions
  • Tracefossils
  • Bioturbation


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