Ancient oceans and continental margins of the Alpine-Mediterranean Tethys: deciphering clues from Mesozoic pelagic sediments and ophiolites



In contrast to Northern Europe where, in the 19th Century, a coherent lithostratigraphy and biostratigraphy was established, many of the ‘odd rocks of mountain belts’ (as christened by Alfred G. Fischer) of the Alpine-Mediterranean region defied an easy interpretation in terms of the simple English layer-cake stratigraphy mapped by William Smith. However, as early as 1862, Eduard Suess recognized close affinities between Mesozoic faunas of the Alps and those of the Himalaya. Suess also described many such Alpine sedimentary rocks as pelagic (a term discussed by Antoine Lavoisier in the context of sea-level change), and the results of the Challenger Expedition (1872 to 1876) convinced the Viennese school of geologists of their deep-water nature. Based on the composition of Jurassic–Cretaceous faunas, Melchior Neumayr postulated the existence of an equatorial ocean, the ‘Central Mediterranean’ which extended from Central America through the Alpine belt to the Himalaya and beyond, an ocean which Suess subsequently named ‘Tethys’. The question of whether or not deep-sea sediments could occur on land, as deliberately posed by Gustav Steinmann in 1925, became central to the long-lasting controversy on the permanency of continents and ocean basins. Indeed, the occurrence of deep-sea deposits in mountain belts required the disappearance of oceanic areas and a mobilist concept of orogeny that was subsequently applied to the Tethyan region by Emile Argand in the wake of the continental drift hypothesis of Alfred Wegener. Implicit in the views of Wegener and Argand is the concept of an oceanic crust fundamentally different from that of the continents. Although ophiolites had been recognized as a special group of rocks in the early 19th Century, Steinmann was the first to interpret the association of (serpentinized) peridotite, ‘diabase’ (dolerite–basalt) and radiolarite (Steinmann Trinity) in a geodynamic context and to consider it as characteristic of the deep ocean. The comparison of Alpine radiolarites with Recent radiolarian oozes deposited below the calcite compensation depth did not remain unchallenged, because of the local association of these siliceous rocks with coarse clastic deposits. However, after the advent of the turbidity-current hypothesis, these detrital deposits were reinterpreted as submarine mass-flow deposits. Consequently, such typical Tethyan facies as Rosso Ammonitico, Maiolica/Biancone and black shales, found in close stratigraphical association with the radiolarites, could be interpreted as deposited on deeply submerged continental and/or oceanic crust where they recorded faithfully a range of interdependent palaeoceanographic phenomena: changes in the relative proportion of siliceous, carbonate and organic-walled biota, in carbonate saturation of sea water, in oceanic circulation and in the impact of orbital-climatic cycles. The results of the Deep Sea Drilling Project, with its discovery of typical Jurassic and Cretaceous Tethyan facies in the Atlantic Ocean, dramatically confirmed the early interpretations of European geologists of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.