Sediment microfabric records mass sedimentation of colonial cyanobacteria and extensive syndepositional metazoan reworking in Pliocene sapropels

Stefan C. Löhr, Martin J. Kennedy, Simon C. George, Robyn J. Williamson, Huiyuan Xu

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The sapropel record of the eastern Mediterranean provides unique insight into the primary climatic, oceanographic, and biological drivers of organic carbon enrichment in marine sediments. The dominant source of organic matter, timing of oxygen depletion at the sea floor, and extent of metazoan reworking of these deposits remain unclear. These questions are addressed by combining microbeam imaging with bulk and molecular geochemical characterization of several Pliocene sapropels, revealing four microfacies which record distinct palaeoceanographic conditions, phytoplankton assemblages, and degrees of postdepositional reworking. The most organic‐rich, carbonate‐lean sapropel intervals consist of alternating 10–60‐μm‐thick organic and detrital mineral laminae. Petrographical features consistent with a pelagic origin, δ15N <−1.8 and the presence of 2α‐methylhopanes indicate that organic laminae formed by mass sedimentation of N‐fixing colonial cyanobacteria (Trichodesmium). The association of framboidal pyrite with organic laminae suggests that mass sedimentation led to the abrupt development of sea floor anoxia. Unlike similar Quaternary sapropels, no petrographic or biomarker evidence is found for a mat‐forming diatom contribution to these organic‐rich, laminated intervals. However, episodic mass sedimentation was not found to be a universal ingredient of sapropel formation. Carbonate‐lean, weakly laminated intervals contain >50 μm organomineral aggregates, interpreted as marine snow, whereas carbonate microfossil‐rich intervals record periods of nitrogen fixation and moderately increased primary production by a diverse assemblage of calcareous, organic‐walled, and siliceous plankton. The results presented here further show that burrowing by microscopic meiofauna impacted most sapropels, extending into seemingly laminated intervals below obvious disruption from burrowing macrofauna, indicating that metazoans influence organic carbon burial in oxygen‐depleted settings even where physical displacement of sediment is not visible.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-317
Number of pages25
JournalThe Depositional Record
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2018. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • cyanobacteria
  • mass sedimentation
  • organic matter source
  • Pliocene
  • sapropel
  • sea floor anoxia


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