Researchers have discovered a prehistoric lost world beneath the surface of the Earth in a secluded area in Patagonia. In hitherto unexplored lagoons, microbial communities known as stromatolites—which may contain some of the oldest signs of life on Earth—were found. Fossils of stromolites, which are unusual structures created by the layering of photosynthesizing organisms, provide light on the planet’s prehistoric history.
While stromatolites are not uncommon, the newfound specimens in Patagonia distinguish themselves by resembling fossils in ways that set them apart from all other known examples. Unlike living stromatolites vulnerable to predation and competition, these ancient formations thrive in environments inhospitable to most life forms, such as hypersaline lagoons.
The most renowned surviving stromatolites exist in Shark Bay, Western Australia, but the discovery in Puna de Atacama, over 12,000 feet above sea level, has captured the attention of scientists. Occupying hypersaline lagoons, these stromatolites could be modern examples of the earliest signs of life on Earth, offering a unique glimpse into our planet’s distant past.
Professor Brian Hynek of Colorado University, Boulder, expressed his amazement, stating that the Patagonian lagoon is “unlike anything I’ve ever seen or, really, like anything any scientist has ever seen.” The site’s elevation and hypersaline conditions make it an extraordinary environment for the survival of these ancient microbial communities. The journey to this remote discovery was no easy feat, requiring a nine-hour drive on dirt roads, followed by a hike through challenging terrain. Despite the hardships, the effort was rewarded with the revelation of 12 lagoons spanning 25 acres, housing stromatolites larger than any seen alive today.
Hynek’s findings suggest that the Patagonian stromatolites closely resemble ancient examples in both size and composition. The lagoons’ extreme conditions, characterized by high salinity and acidity, coupled with unfiltered sunlight, make them a potential proxy for the early Earth and, intriguingly, for ancient Mars.
However, the newfound site faces a potential threat as mining interests, attracted by the region’s abundant lithium deposits, plan to drill nearby. Hynek fears that the delicate stromatolite ecosystems may be irreversibly damaged in the process. As scientists race against time to study and document this remarkable discovery, the prehistoric lost world beneath Patagonia’s surface holds the keys to unlocking Earth’s ancient mysteries and, possibly, clues about life on other planets.