Micropaleontological evidence for redox changes in the OAE3 interval of the US Western Interior: Global vs. local processes

Christopher M. Lowery*, R. Mark Leckie, Bradley B. Sageman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


The Coniacian-Santonian interval has been proposed as the youngest of the Cretaceous ocean anoxic events (OAE3), but this designation has long been debated. OAE3 is associated with a long-lasting (∼3 myr) succession of black shales from the central and South Atlantic, Caribbean region, and the North American Western Interior; in the Western Interior it is characterized by an abrupt increase in total organic carbon (TOC) and corresponding trace metal indicators for anoxia. However, the modern concept of OAEs is predicated on detection of global carbon cycle perturbations as recorded by substantial carbon isotope excursions (CIE), and the protracted Coniacian-Santonian black shale interval does not have a large CIE. A more conservative definition of OAE3 might limit the event to the modest positive carbon isotope excursion restricted to the upper Coniacian Scaphites depressus Ammonite Zone. Trace metal proxies suggest that oxygen levels abruptly declined prior to the onset of this CIE in the Western Interior Sea (WIS), but it is unknown whether regional anoxic conditions were confined to sediments/pore waters, or how anoxia may have affected the biota. In an effort to characterize the oxygenation history of the WIS and to better understand the nature of the hypothesized OAE3, we present micropaleontological evidence of declining oxygen in bottom waters prior to the event using benthic foraminifera, which are sensitive to dissolved oxygen. Changes in benthic foraminiferal abundances suggest a decline in oxygen at least 1-myr prior to the CIE (including a nadir immediately below the start of the excursion), improving bottom water oxygen during the CIE, and re-establishment of persistent anoxia following the isotope excursion. Anoxia endured for nearly 3 myr in the central seaway, showing some signs of recovery toward the top of the Niobrara Formation. Our findings suggest that declining oxygen concentrations in the seaway eventually reached a tipping point, after which dissolved oxygen quickly dropped to zero. The late Coniacian CIE is an exception to the trend of declining oxygen in the WIS, and part of a larger pattern in the oxygenation history of the Niobrara Formation which suggests that it does not adhere to standard black shale models. Transgressive periods, including the Fort Hays Limestone and the lower limestone unit of the Smoky Hill Shale (which corresponds to the CIE) are relatively oxic, while periods of highstand (i.e., most of the Smoky Hill) correspond to deteriorating oxygen conditions. This contrasts with the standard black shale model for sea level and oxygen, where transgressions typically correlate with maximum TOC enrichment, interpreted to result from both sediment condensation and oxygen deficiency. The association of global carbon burial/anoxia (as indicated by carbon isotopes) with a regional increase in oxygen and decrease in organic matter preservation is reminiscent of the Cenomanian-Turonian Greenhorn Limestone, which contains OAE2. In both cases, the facies are not typical black shales, but instead have appreciable carbonate content. Western Interior redox trends support the rejection of the original concept of a protracted Coniacian-Santonian OAE3 because it is not a distinct “event.” Increasing local oxygen during the late Coniacian CIE also argues against a narrower OAE designation for this event, because the excursion can't be tied to anoxia here or anywhere else it has been described. Nevertheless, the Late Coniacian Event (as we prefer to call this CIE) still represents an important perturbation of the global carbon cycle. This is emblematic of the shift away from widespread, discrete anoxic events during the ongoing paleoceanographic reorganization of the Late Cretaceous, even as large carbon cycle perturbations continued.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)34-48
Number of pages15
JournalCretaceous Research
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


  • Anoxia
  • Foraminifera
  • Late Cretaceous
  • Niobrara
  • Oceanic Anoxic Event 3
  • Western Interior Sea

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Palaeontology


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