Chert spheroids of the Monterey Formation, California (USA): early-diagenetic structures of bedded siliceous deposits



Chert spheroids are distinctive, early-diagenetic features that occur in bedded siliceous deposits spanning the Phanerozoic. These features are distinct in structure and genesis from similar, concentrically banded ‘wood-grain’ or ‘onion-skin’ chert nodules from carbonate successions. In the Miocene Monterey Formation of California (USA), chert spheroids are irregular, concentrically banded nodules, which formed by a unique version of brittle differential compaction that results from the contrasting physical properties of chert and diatomite. During shortening, there is brittle fracture of diatomite around, and horizontally away from, the convex surface of strain-resistant chert nodules. Unlike most older siliceous deposits, the Monterey Formation still preserves all stages of silica diagenesis, thus retaining textural, mineralogical and geochemical features key to unravelling the origin of chert spheroids and other enigmatic chert structures. Chert spheroids found in opal-A diatomite form individual nodules composed of alternating bands of impure opal-CT chert and pure opal-CT or chalcedony. With increased burial diagenesis, surrounding diatomite transforms to bedded porcelanite or chert, and spheroids no longer form discrete nodules, yet still display characteristic concentric bands of pure and impure microcrystalline quartz and chalcedony. Petrographic observations show that the purer silica bands are composed of void-filling cement that precipitated in curved dilational fractures, and do not reflect geochemical growth-banding in the manner of Liesegang phenomena invoked to explain concentrically banded chert nodules in limestone. Chertification of bedded siliceous sediment can occur more shallowly (< 100 m) and rapidly (< 1 Myr) than the bulk silica phase transitions forming porcelanite or siliceous shale in the Monterey Formation and other hemipelagic/pelagic siliceous deposits. Early diagenesis is indicated by physical properties, deformational style and oxygen-isotopic composition of chert spheroids. Early-formed cherts formed by pore-filling impregnation of the purest primary diatomaceous beds, along permeable fractures and in calcareous–siliceous strata.