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Silurian calcareous algae, cyanobacteria, and microproblematica are abundantly preserved in the Alexander terrane of southeastern Alaska. They represent a diverse population of calcified microbes that contributed to the formation of a variety of shallow- and deep-water carbonate deposits. Five associations are recognized on the basis of recurring groups of microbial taxa. These include a Girvanella-Tuxekanella association that formed oncoids and thick encrustations on skeletal grains in shelf environments. A Renalcis association predominated in a stromatoporoid-coral reef that developed at the incipient shelf margin on a crinoid-solenoporid shoal (“Solenopora” association). Other organic buildups are characterized by a Ludlovia association, which constructed skeletal stromatolite reefs, and by an Epiphyton-Sphaerina association that contributed to the formation of a stromatolitic mud mound. A mixed microbial assemblage reflects transport and mixing of shallow-water microbial biotas that were deposited by turbidity currents, debris flows, and slumps in a slope environment.
Limestones of Silurian age (late Llandovery–Ludlow) from the Heceta Formation of southeastern Alaska (Alexander terrane) yield a diverse assemblage of calcified microbial organisms. Fourteen taxa are described, including the cyanobacteria Girvanella and ?Hedstroemia, possible cyanobacteria Epiphyton, Ludlovia, and Renalcis, three species of “Solenopora,” and microproblematica Rothpletzella and Wetheredella. Diagnoses and descriptions are also given of the new epiphytacean genus Hecetaphyton n. gen. and new microproblematica genera Tuxekanella n. gen. and Sphaerina n. gen.
This course is designed so that topics in invertebrate paleontology are discussed in the context of reefs and their change through time. The goal is to help undergraduate students connect modern conservation issues with an enlightened appreciation of the fossil record. Using reefs as the centralizing theme of the course allows key concepts (invertebrate taxonomy and systematics, form and function, evolution, etc.) to be emphasized while exploring the importance of biogenic buildups—and communities that inhabited ecosystems adjacent to those “engines of evolution”—from the past to the present. Students who satisfactorily complete the course achieve seven main learning objectives: They 1) are intimately familiar with the fossil record of marine invertebrate life; 2) understand the evolutionary history of reefs and the ecological roles played by key reef-building invertebrates through time; 3) are able to engage in discussions about paleontological data published in the primary literature; 4) are knowledgeable about the value of paleontological evidence for shedding insights into the decline of ancient and living reefs; 5) gain experience working collaboratively and thinking outside-of-the-box to explore solutions to societal problems linked with the degradation of modern coral reefs; 6) improve scientific writing; and 7) develop a personal style for communicating scientific information to the general public. During classroom discussions, laboratories, a field trip, and museum visit, students explore the anatomy, ecology, evolutionary history, and life-sustaining ecosystem services of shelly animals and associated marine organisms that coexisted in reefs and adjacent habitats past and present. Evolutionary events, including the Cambrian “explosion,” mass extinctions, and gaps in reef existence, are linked to dramatic physical (tectonic) and climatic changes that occurred in Earth's past. Emphasizing evidence for the impact of global change on ancient reef communities alerts students to the value of paleontological data for predicting how modern reefs—and invertebrates living in interconnected marine ecosystems—will respond as the Sixth Extinction gains traction. That topic is the focus of an optional extended study (nine-day field trip offered in alternate years during spring break) of modern and Pleistocene reefs on San Salvador Island, Bahamas.
Silurian organisms preserved in southeastern Alaska (Alexander terrane) inhabited marine environments within an island-arc complex during a phase of waning volcanism and are fossilized in a diversity of shallow-marine platform and deep-water deposits. These fossils exhibit a distinctive suite of characteristics and share fundamental similarities with biotas of Paleozoic-Mesozoic age that are preserved in other accreted island terranes of North America. These special attributes reflect the colonization, evolution, and diversification of marine organisms adjacent to subconical/conical volcanic edifices characterized by relatively high rates of subsidence, steep submarine slopes, tectonic instability, and biogeographic isolation. Recognition of these diagnostic features enables many ancient island faunas to be distinguished from those that lived on the craton and enhances differentiation of island biotas from pelagic assemblages that accumulated as oozes in deep ocean basins.
Although island faunas exhibit a high degree of variability in taxonomic diversity, levels of endemism, and provincial affinities, many share a significant number of similarities. Several of these shared attributes reflect organismal evolution in biogeographic isolation at island sites separated from continental and other source regions by considerable geographic distances or at locations unfavorably situated with respect to oceanic currents transporting teleplanic larvae. Comparison of Silurian island-arc faunas from Alaska with coeval assemblages from different tectonic settings and with modern volcanic islands shows that oceanic island biotas commonly are characterized by: (1) initially impoverished, normal marine faunas of low diversity and abundance that are preserved in exceptionally thick platform sequences; (2) sequential development of organic structures from fringing to barrier reefs on the outer shelf during thermal subsidence and lateral expansion of the carbonate platform; (3) restricted faunas devoid of normal marine shelly benthos and tolerant of quiet-water conditions, muddy substrates, and fluctuations in salinity, temperature, and oxygen concentrations in back-reef lagoons; (4) extensive taphonomic redistribution of organisms along bathymetric gradients and downslope preservation in debris flows, slumps, and turbidites of mixed fossil assemblages derived from shelf and shelf-margin habitats; (5) rapid lateral and vertical changes in biofacies, reflecting complex depositional systems in fault-block basins; (6) insular biotas with relatively high levels of endemism; (7) complex paleobiogeographic affinities expressed in assemblages that comprise mixtures of taxa from different faunal regions; and (8) relict biotas that may represent the protracted survival of some organisms in island refugia.
Because many accreted islands are poorly preserved and highly deformed, recognizing these distinctive features in oceanic island faunas enhances identification of allochthonous volcanic arcs, seamounts, atolls, and hot-spot islands in the ancient geologic record. Using fossils to identify islands in accreted terranes is especially important when island origins of strata are suspected but difficult to prove because calc-alkaline volcano-plutonic rocks or derivative volcanogenic and quartz-poor siliciclastic deposits are absent or not exposed. Hence, relying on fossils to recognize oceanic islands that survived destructive tectonic processes offers an expanded list of geologic criteria to aid in reconstructing plate boundaries marking ancient zones of convergence and to use in unraveling the tectonic history of ocean basins recorded in suspect terranes.
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