Concrete cauliflowers

Life on Earth is always changing. A hundred million years ago, dinosaurs tramped through the forests. But long before that, an amazing number of animals wandered and slithered over the land, or swam and crawled in the seas. And if we went right back in time, we'd find that the very first creatures, thousands of millions of years ago, were so small that you couldn't see them. All you'd see is just a bit of slime . . .

Do you like cauliflowers? I do, so I'm going to begin with them. What on earth, you might ask, do cauliflowers have to do with life before the dinosaurs?

It's a fair question. But, strange as it might seem, even a cauliflower has a part to play in this story.

If your fridge is anything like mine, there'll be all sorts of strange and not so wondrous things lurking inside. Perhaps there's a cauliflower that's been sitting in there, minding its own business, for weeks. Rather than the crisp, snowy white ball that went in, it is now a crusty black lump that looks as though it's about to crawl out of the fridge on its own. This rather smelly object looks uncannily like some rocks that grow in shallow bays and lakes in Western Australia. These rocks are called stromatolites (stro-mat-o-lites), and they are very peculiar, not just because they look like concrete cauliflowers, but because they grow.

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That's right, a rock that grows. And, believe it or not, these rotten cauliflower look-alikes are the key to understanding the very first life on Earth.

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