Microorganisms (prokaryotes and protists) seldom fossilize, but they form much of the trophic structure in marine pelagic and benthic environments, chiefly as primary producers and secondary consumers. The fossil record of unskeletonized groups is meager or non-existent. Skeletonized groups have excellent records but represent a small portion of the total microbial diversity.
The evolution of trophic structures and roles of microorganisms can be reconstructed broadly for most of geologic history. When life first evolved, it had a trophic structure. The first microbial fossils appear to be benthic mats; these are abundant in the Precambrian but sparse later; body fossils are very rare. The Archean saw pelagic and benthic prokaryotes and possibly protists later on. Proterozoic trophic structures became increasingly complex as protists entered pelagic environments. Benthic assemblages likewise became complex, as prokaryotes and protists formed mats and stromatolites in many environments. At the end of the eon, animals appeared; microbial primary producers and predation on microorganisms and among animals fueled these assemblages. The fundamental trophic structures that developed then persisted with modification into modern times. Phanerozoic ecosystems became very complex as skeletonized animals and protists evolved. Among the important trophic developments in the Phanerozoic history of microorganisms were the early diversification of phytoplankton and siliceous micro-zooplankton (Cambrian), algal endosymbiosis with benthic metazoans (Cambrian to Recent) and rock-forming foraminifera (late Paleozoic to Recent), the radiation of pelagic skeletal primary producers and micro-zooplankton (mid-Mesozoic), and radiations in the deep sea, reefs, and shallow areas (Mesozoic and Cenozoic). Each evolutionary change increased trophic complexity by adding more species at each level, while episodic mass extinctions decreased species diversity and trophic complexity.
Marine trophic structures evolved over immense intervals of geologic time, growing complex and then suffering destruction at major extinction events. The effects of human impact on these structures should be examined, for without them, Earth may change dramatically.