Tyler Mackey

Postdoctoral Associate
Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Assistant Professor
Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
University of New Mexico


Tyler at Lake Fryxell, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, exploring microbial mat oxygen oases (Sumner et al., 2016)

Tyler Mackey

My research uses the tools of sedimentology to understand what evidence of microbial communities can enter the rock record, how we recognize these deposits, and what sorts of observations in modern microbial ecosystems can give us useful search patterns to bring back to the rock record. The majority of Earth history is microbial, so these sediments serve as a window to key evolutionary transitions and changes in habitats through time. Current research projects integrate field studies and laboratory analysis to explore microbial habitats of modern ice-covered Antarctic lakes and assess Neoproterozoic (1000–541 million years ago) environments surrounding the expansion of complex life.

Current Research

Microbial reef from prior to the Neoproterozoic Sturtian Glaciation in Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Stromatolites from within Marinoan glacial deposits of the Wilsonbreen Formation, Ny Friesland, Svalbard

Cryogenian habitats for early animals


The expansion of complex multicellular life like animals marks a pivotal point in Earth history, with the origin of novel behaviors that transformed the evolutionary and biogeochemical landscape. Evidence for the first animals comes in the midst of the major climate perturbations of the Cryogenian (635-850 Ma), but the habitats that would have been available for these early animals are poorly defined.

I work with Cryogenian sedimentary successions from Svalbard, where transitions between glacial Snowball Earth and interglacial conditions are preserved in mixed carbonate and siliciclastic sections. Within these varied depositional environments, I explore how changes in climate affect the habitats that would have been available for early animal evolution. This work combines sedimentary and petrographic observations with analysis of clumped isotopes, synchrotron-based characterization of Mn and Fe redox state, and biomarkers across Sturtian and Marinoan glacial deposits in Svalbard. By combining these data sets I assess (a) diagenetic conditions that could have modified environmental signatures, (b) the range of physical environments and oxygenation of habitats available during glacial episodes and (c) the biological significance of the habitats.

Microbial mat records of microbial activity and depositional environments

McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

Morphological indications of microbial activity 
Microbial mats and calcified proto-stromatolites are abundant in lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, and their growth morphologies preserve a record of interactions between microbial activity and the depositional environment. My work combines field observations of microbial mat morphologies growing in specific depositional environments with carbonate petrography, X-ray computed tomography, and 3D reconstructions. Sampling of delicate microbial mats with detailed environmental context is made possible by diving.

Microbial mats growing in Lake Joyce across gradients in mud deposition.

Significant findings include: 
1. Mud sedimentation simplifies stromatolite morphology. I demonstrated that distinctive mat morphologies commonly taken as evidence for photosynthetic activity can be dampened by even small influxes of mud, and this may bias our record of microbial evolution through time (Mackey et al., 2017). 
2. Stromatolite branching can result from changes in microbial community.  Changes in stromatolite branching are traditionally interpreted as a product of changing sedimentation or wave energy, but in the low energy depositional environment of Lake Joyce, I found that these patterns could also emerge from changes in the microbial community composition (Mackey et al., 2015). 
3. Mat morphology across sedimentary and irradiance microenvironments can provide evidence for photosynthetic activity. By comparing mat morphology with 3D reconstructions of the lake bottom, modeled irradiance, and sedimentary microenvironments in Lake Vanda, I demonstrated that phototactic activity of the microbial communities in a directional light environment modified the patterns of pinnacle growth more strongly than changes in total irradiance or sedimentation (Mackey et al., in review).

Chemical indications of microbial activity 
Carbonates that precipitate alongside active microbial communities can leave signatures of this activity in carbon and oxygen isotopes. By comparing the petrography of Lake Joyce stromatolites and the d13C and d18O values of microdrilled calcite, I documented how rising lake levels from summer melt reduced photosynthetic rates and demonstrated that the ice covered conditions modulated isotopic signatures of photosynthesis (Mackey et al., in review).

Columnar stromatolite from Lake Joyce (a), containing calcified layers (b). Calcite contains abundant cyanobacterial microfossils (c).

Previous Research

Diving to sample microbialites viewed from Deep Worker submersible

Previous Research

Pavilion Lake Research Project
Pavilion and Kelly lakes, British Columbia, Canada
Research on modern microbialites and logistics for exploration with PLRP NASA Analog Mission (e.g. Harwood-Theisen et al., 2015).

Effects of ice cementation on beach deposits
Observations of modern sedimentation associated with ice-cementation of beaches during winter storms on Lake Superior and application to similar features from Paleozoic beach deposits of SE Minnesota (Runkel et al., 2010).



tjmackey <at> unm.edu </at>
Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
Northrop Hall, 221 Yale Blvd NE
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131