Seven mud-filled incised valleys (MFIVs) in the paralic facies of the Dinosaur Park and Horseshoe Canyon formations (Upper Cretaceous) of southern Alberta were studied to better understand their morphology, geometry and depositional histories in an estuarine context. Two preservational geometries occur: simple, U-shaped forms; and internally complex forms. Both types of MFIV record deposition in the central zone of low energy (turbidity) in an estuarine setting.

Simple, U-shaped MFIVs have sharp basal erosional surfaces and consist of mudstone-dominated heterolithic fills of channel-wide, concave-up laminae. Associated fossil assemblages are marine to brackish. Each simple MFIV records a cut-and-fill history associated with a cycle of relative sea-level drop and rise. Low-energy depositional settings, loss of channel form during infilling, and associated shoreface deposits, as well as the absence of clear tidal indicators suggest a coastal plain estuarine setting, along a wave-dominated, barred coastline.

Complex MFIVs are rarer, and consist of imbricated, wedge-shaped sets of inclined-to-horizontal heterolithic strata. Tidal deposits and/or nonmarine-to-marine macrofossils occur locally. Complex MFIVs were infilled in meandering reaches of the central zone of low energy in tide-dominated estuaries. Their rarity compared to simple MFIVs and their freshwater palaeontological content suggest that they were contiguous landward with extensive fluvial channels. A complex MFIV near Onefour comprises three in-channel depositional cycles. Each cycle consists of an erosional surface overlain by lateral accretion bedding and a conformable transition to vertically aggraded strata. Each cycle reflects a cut-and-fill event under the control of changes in relative sea-level that culminated in overbank flooding.

All MFIVs formed in low-gradient settings (≤0.03%) where estuarine zones were stretched out over many tens of kilometres. Tide-dominated estuaries apparently exhibited simple, straight-to-meandering upstream transitions and extensive landward penetration (≥200 km) of tidal backwater effects. Few modern estuaries serve as adequate modern analogues to these ancient, tide-dominated estuaries.

Radiometric data indicate that MFIV cut-and-fill cycles were 100 000-400 000 years in maximum duration and thus, equivalent to 4th order sea-level cycles. However, negative evidence tentatively suggests that these cycles took place over time intervals 1-2 orders of magnitude smaller (5th order or higher sea-level cycles).