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ABSTRACT Fluvial megafans chronicle the evolution of large mountainous drainage networks, providing a record of erosional denudation in adjacent mountain belts. An actualistic investigation of the development of fluvial megafans is presented here by comparing active fluvial megafans in the proximal foreland basin of the central Andes to Tertiary foreland-basin deposits exposed in the interior of the mountain belt. Modern fluvial megafans of the Chaco Plain of southern Bolivia are large (5800–22 600 km2), fan-shaped masses of dominantly sand and mud deposited by major transverse rivers (Rio Grande, Rio Parapeti, and Rio Pilcomayo) emanating from the central Andes. The rivers exit the mountain belt and debouch onto the low-relief Chaco Plain at fixed points along the mountain front. On each fluvial megafan, the presently active channel is straight in plan view and dominated by deposition of mid-channel and bank-attached sand bars. Overbank areas are characterized by crevasse-splay and paludal deposition with minor soil development. However, overbank areas also contain numerous relicts of recently abandoned divergent channels, suggesting a long-term distributary drainage pattern and frequent channel avulsions. The position of the primary channel on each megafan is highly unstable over short time scales.

Fluvial megafans of the Chaco Plain provide a modern analogue for a coarsening-upward, > 2-km-thick succession of Tertiary strata exposed along the Camargo syncline in the Eastern Cordillera of the central Andean fold-thrust belt, about 200 km west of the modern megafans. Lithofacies of the mid-Tertiary Camargo Formation include: (1) large channel and small channel deposits interpreted, respectively, as the main river stem on the proximal megafan and distributary channels on the distal megafan; and (2) crevasse-splay, paludal and palaeosol deposits attributed to sedimentation in overbank areas. A reversal in palaeocurrents in the lowermost Camargo succession and an overall upward coarsening and thickening trend are best explained by progradation of a fluvial megafan during eastward advance of the fold-thrust belt. In addition, the present-day drainage network in this area of the Eastern Cordillera is focused into a single outlet point that coincides with the location of the coarsest and thickest strata of the Camargo succession. Thus, the modern drainage network may be inherited from an ancestral mid-Tertiary drainage network.

Persistence and expansion of Andean drainage networks provides the basis for a geometric model of the evolution of drainage networks in advancing fold-thrust belts and the origin and development of fluvial megafans. The model suggests that fluvial megafans may only develop once a drainage network has reached a particular size, roughly 104 km2– a value based on a review of active fluvial megafans that would be affected by the tectonic, climatic and geomorphologic processes operating in a given mountain belt. Furthermore, once a drainage network has achieved this critical size, the river may have sufficient stream power to prove relatively insensitive to possible geometric changes imparted by growing frontal structures in the fold-thrust belt.