Deposition of the Bear Gulch Limestone: a Carboniferous Plattenkalk from central Montana



The Carboniferous Bear Gulch Limestone of the central Montana Big Snowy Trough is a lithographic limestone analogous to the plattenkalk carbonates of the Mesozoic European/Middle Eastern Tethyan belt. It contains an excellently preserved chitinous and phosphatic marine fauna.

Petrographic and field studies synthesized with palaeontological data provide insights into depositional history. Tectonic activity initiated development of small en echelon basins. Rims of these basins were sites of high primary productivity. Photosynthesis by subtidal cyanobacterial mats and algae caused in situ precipitation of micrite. Cyanobacteria and algae also provided a food source for benthic and nektonic organisms, which provided food for predators. Respiration in turn provided carbon dioxide for continued photosynthesis. Thus a balanced ecosystem evolved.

Productivity in the water column used up available oxygen, resulting in dysaerobic to anaerobic conditions in the bottom waters and sediments. This plus high sedimentation rates of carbonate ooze transported downslope, aided in preservation of whole-body fossils.

There are no likely modern analogues known for the Bear Gulch Limestone. However, comparisons with Mesozoic plattenkalke demonstrate that it is most closely analogous to those deposited in shallow water back-reef areas of the Tethyan carbonate platform, rather than to those deposited in the deeper water shelf-edge environment. This is in agreement with the water depth of roughly 40 m estimated for the Bear Gulch Limestone.