During Serravallian through Messinian time, marine carbonates flanked topographic highs that rimmed Neogene basins in the Western Mediterranean. Middle to upper Miocene carbonate strata in the Las Negras and Nijar areas (southeastern Spain) are 50-150 m thick and display 50-200 m of shelf-to-basin relief over 1-2 km. Detailed studies in those areas document the effects of relative sea-level change on sedimentation, biotic composition, and reef development. We identify three previously unrecognized, regionally correlatable depositional sequences (DS1, DS2, DS3) that occur between the underlying basement and the overlying Terminal Carbonate Complex. The lower depositional sequences (DS1, DS2) are mostly normal marine shelf (ramp) carbonates deposited on the flanks of basement highs. The basal part of DS2 locally contains some megabreccia reef blocks composed of Tarbellastraea and Porites. These blocks are the first evidence of reef growth in the area and represent a previously unrecognized period of reef development prior to the fringing reef development. The reef blocks probably formed as upslope patch reefs that were eroded and transported to distal slope locations. The upper sequence (DS3) is characterized by clinoform strata of a Porites-dominated fringing reef complex that prograded basinward in a downstepping style with successively younger reefs forming in a topographically lower and more basinward position as a result of a net sea-level drop.

Regional correlation of Miocene shallow-marine strata between basins in Spain and elsewhere in the western Mediterranean is complicated because basins were semi-isolated from adjacent basins making physical correlation impossible. In addition, age-definitive biostratigraphic markers are poorly preserved in most of the Miocene shallow-water strata; basinal sediments that are more easily dated by microfossils do not typically interfinger with the shallow-marine strata in outcrop. Even where datable microfossils are found, resolution of dating is poor.

Our studies in the Las Negras and Nijar areas illustrate the usefulness of integrating sedimentological, geometric and biotic data with locally derived relative sea-level (accommodation space) curves for correlation. The relative sea-level curves for each area show remarkable similarities in shape and magnitude of sea-level changes. These curves indicate several relative sea-level fluctuations during Miocene carbonate deposition prior to the major sea-level drop at the end of DS3 deposition that culminated in the exposure of the basin margin deposits and the deposition of evaporites in basinal areas during the Messinian.

The depositional sequences in the Las Negras and Nijar areas may correlate with depositional sequences of similar age throughout the southern Cabo de Gata area, in Mallorca some 600 km to the northeast, and possibly in other Mediterranean locations. The widespread occurrence and possible correlation of the depositional sequences suggest regional processes such as eustacy or tectonism for their formation.

The integration of sedimentological, palaeontological and sequence stratigraphic studies, and the construction of relative sea-level (accommodation space) curves may help in the interpretation of depositional histories of shallow-marine carbonate complexes and correlation of these strata between isolated areas. Other dating methods, in addition to microfossil dating, may allow for better age determination of the sequences and aid in identifying the importance of eustacy and tectonism in sequence development.