Tectonics and Structural Geology


Minds over Methods: Linking microfossils to tectonics

Minds over Methods: Linking microfossils to tectonics

This edition of Minds over Methods article is written by Sarah Kachovich and discusses how tiny fossils can be used to address large scale tectonic questions. During her PhD at the University of Brisbane, Australia, she used radiolarian biostratigraphy to provide temporal constraints on the tectonic evolution of the Himalayan region – onshore and offshore on board IODP Expedition 362. Sarah explains why microfossils are so useful and how their assemblages can be used to understand the history of the Himalayas. And how are new technologies improving our understanding of microfossils, thus advancing them as a dating method?


                                                                          Linking microfossils to tectonics

Credit: Sarah Kachovich

Sarah Kachovich, Postdoctoral Researcher at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia.

Radiolarians are single-celled marine organisms that have the ability to fix intricate, siliceous skeletons. This group of organism have captured the attention of artist and geologist alike due to their skeletal diversity and complexity that can be observed in rocks from the Cambrian to the present. As a virtue of their silica skeletons, small size and abundance, radiolarian skeletons can potentially exist in most fine-grained marine deposits as long as their preservation is good. This includes mudstones, hard shales, limestones and cherts. To recover radiolarians from a rock, acid digestion is commonly required. For cherts, 12-24 hours in 5 % hydrofluoric acid is needed to liberate radiolarians. Specimens are collected on a 63 µm sieve and prepared for transmitted light or scanning electron microscope analysis.

Animation of radiolarian diversity. Credit: Sarah Kachovich

Scale and diversity of modern radiolarians. Credit: Sarah Kachovich (radiolarians from IODP Expedition 362) and Adrianna Rajkumar (hair).











Improving the biostratigraphical potential of radiolarians

The radiolarian form has changed drastically through time and by figuratively “standing on the shoulders of giants”, we correlate forms from well-studied sections to determine an age of an unknown sample. A large effort of my PhD was aimed to progress, previously stagnant, research in radiolarian evolution and systematics in an effort to improve the biostratigraphical potential of spherical radiolarians, especially from the Early Palaeozoic. The end goal of this work is to improve the biostratigraphy method and its utility, thus increasing our understanding of the mountain building processes.

The main problem with older deposits is the typical states of preservation, where radiolarians partly or totally lose their transparency, which makes traditional illustration with simple transmitted light optics difficult. Micro-computed tomography (µ-CT) has been adopted in fields as diverse as the mineralogical, biological, biophysical and anatomical sciences. Although the implementation in palaeontology has been steady, µ-CT has not displaced more traditional imaging methods, despite its often superior performance.

Animation of an Ordovician radiolarian skeleton in 3D imaged through µ-CT. Credit: Sarah Kachovich

To study small complex radiolarian skeletons, you need to mount a single specimen and scan it at the highest resolution of the µ-CT. The µ-CT method is much like a CAT scan in a hospital, where X-rays are imaged at different orientations, then digitally stitched together to reconstruct a 3D model. The vital function of the internal structures provides new insights to early radiolarian morphologies and is a step towards creating a more robust biostratigraphy for radiolarians in the Early Paleozoic.

Linking radiolarian fossils to tectonics

Radiolarian chert is important to Himalayan geologists as it provides a robust tool to better document and interpret the age and consumption of oceanic lithosphere that once intervened India and Asia before their collision.The chert that directly overlies pillow basalt in the ophiolite sequence (remnant oceanic lithosphere) represents the minimum age constraint of its formation. In the Himalayas, over 2000 km of ocean has been consumed as India rifted from Western Australia and migrated north to collide with Asia. Only small slivers of ophiolite and overlying radiolarian cherts are preserved in the suture zone and it is our job to determine how these few ophiolite puzzle pieces fit together.

Another way I have been able to link microfossils to Himalayan tectonics is by studying the history and source of erosion from the Himalayas on board IODP Expedition 362. Sedimentation rates obtained from deep sea drilling can provide ages of various tectonic events related to the India-Asia collision. For example, we were able to date various events such as the collision of the Ninety East Ridge with the Sumatra subduction zone, which chocked off the sediment supply to the Nicobar basin around 2 Ma as the ridge collided with the subduction zone.

Left: Results from the McNeill et al. (2017) of the sedimentation history of Bengal Fan (green dots) and Nicobar Fan (red dots). Middle/right: Reconstruction of India and Asia for the past 9 million years showing the sediment source from the Himalayas to both basins on either side of the Ninety East Ridge.













Lastly, on board Expedition 362 we were able to use microfossils to understand how and why big earthquakes happen. We targeted the incoming sediments to the Sumatra subduction zone that were partly responsible for the globally 3rd largest recorded earthquake (Mw≈9.2). This earthquake occurred in 2004 and produced a tsunami that killed more than 250,000 people.

From the seismic profiles (see example below), we found that the seismic horizon where the pre-decollement formed coincided with a thick layer of biogenetically rich sediment (e.g. radiolarians, sponge spicules, etc.) found whilst drilling. Under the weight of the overlying Nicobar Fan sediments, this critical layer of biogenic silica is undergoing diagenesis and fresh water is being chemically released into the sediments. The fresh water within these sediments is moving into the subduction zone where it has implications to the physical properties of the sediment and the morphology of the forearc region.

The Sumatra subduction zone. The dark orange zone represents the rupture area of the 2004 earthquake. Also shown are the drill sites of IODP Expedition 362 and the location of seismic lines across the plate boundary.

Seismic profile: The fault that develops between the two tectonic plates (the plate boundary fault) forms at the red dotted line. Note the location of the drill site.
























Hüpers, A., Torres, M. E., Owari, S., McNeill, L. C., Dugan, & Expedition 362 Scientists, 2017. Release of mineral-bound water prior to subduction tied to shallow seismogenic slip. Science, 356: 841–844. doi:10.1126/science.aal3429

McNeill, L. C., Dugan, B., Backman, J., Pickering, K. T., & Expedition 362 Scientists 2017. Understanding Himalayan Erosion and the Significance of the Nicobar Fan. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 475: 134–142. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2017.07.019

Minds over Methods: Reconstructing oceans lost to subduction

Minds over Methods: Reconstructing oceans lost to subduction

Our next Minds over Methods article is written by Derya Gürer, who just finished a PhD at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. During her PhD, she used a combination of many methods to reconstruct the evolution of the Anadolu plate, which got almost entirely lost during closure of the Neotethys in Anatolia. Here, she explains how the use of these multiple methods helped her to obtain a 3D understanding of the Anatolian double subduction system and the demise of the Anadolu plate. 

Credit: Derya Gürer

Reconstructing oceans lost to subduction

Derya Gürer, Postdoctoral Researcher, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. 

Subduction represents the single biggest recycling process on Earth and takes place at convergent plate boundaries. One plate subducts underneath another into the mantle, generating volcanism, earthquakes, tsunamis and associated hazards. Subduction zones come and go, and nearly half of the subduction zones active today formed in the Cenozoic (after ~65 Ma) (Gurnis et al., 2004). The negative buoyancy of subducted lithosphere (‘slab pull’) is thought to be the major driver of plate tectonics (Turcotte and Schubert, 2014). Changes in the configuration of subduction zones thus change the driving forces of plate tectonics, making the reconstruction of the kinematic evolution of subduction key to understanding past plate motions. Such reconstructions make use of data preserved in the modern oceans (marine magnetic anomalies and fracture zone patterns). But because subduction is a destructive process, the surface record of subduction-dominated systems is naturally incomplete, and more so backwards in time. Sometimes, relicts of subducted lithosphere are preserved in active margin mountain belts, holding valuable information to restore past plate motions and the dynamic evolution of subduction zones.

But how does one recognize a plate that has been almost entirely lost to subduction? And how do we reconstruct the evolution of subduction zones through space and time?


Archives of plates that were (almost) lost due to subduction

Subduction occurs in a variety of geometries and leaves behind a distinct geological record that holds key elements for the analysis of the past kinematics of now-subducted plates. Where subduction occurred below oceanic lithosphere, fragments of the leading edge of this overriding lithosphere may be left behind as remnants of oceanic crust (ophiolites). Subduction of oceanic plates may also be associated with accretion of its volcano-sedimentary cover to the overriding plate as an accretionary complex (Matsuda and Isozaki, 1991). Forearc basins associated with intra-oceanic subduction zones form on top of ophiolites and accretionary complexes and may record permanent deformation (syn-kinematic) of the overriding plate in response to tectonic interaction with the down-going plate (e.g., accretion, subduction erosion, slab roll-back) (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The location of archives of the evolution of “lost” oceanic plates (ophiolites, accretionary complexes, forearc basins) in a subduction zone setting.Credit: Derya Gürer.

The sedimentary infill of forearc basins implicitly records the nature and stress state of the overriding plate. Forearc basins may therefore hold the most complete record of the motion of the oceanic plate relative to the trench. However, many accretionary complexes and forearcs are deeply submerged and buried below sediments, making them highly inaccessible, and therefore expensive to study. As a consequence, our understanding of such systems is primarily based on well-studied examples in the East Pacific (e.g. Franciscan Complex, California (Wakabayashi, 2015)). Other such systems exist in the Mediterranean realm – for example in the geological record of Anatolia. The unique and direct archive of past plate motion in the geological record of Central and Eastern Anatolia is independent from constraints provided by marine magnetic anomalies, and provides a key region to unravel the evolution of destructive plate boundaries.


How many oceans were lost in Anatolia?

Fig. 2: The multidisciplinary approach used in my PhD research consisted of structural field analysis and stratigraphy of Anatolian sedimentary basins with focus on syn-kinematic deformation (top) with time constraints provided by absolute age dating of accessory minerals and biostratigraphy (middle). Paleomagnetic analysis (bottom left) provided information about vertical axis rotations. The combined information from these methods were integrated in a kinematic reconstruction and tested against mantle tomography (bottom right). Credit: Derya Gürer

To answer this question, I studied the deformation of sedimentary basins overlying Anatolian ophiolites (remnants of oceanic crust), and the deformation record of rocks which were buried and exhumed below these ophiolites. The Cenozoic deformation of the Anatolian orogen allowed for identifying the timing of arrest of the subduction history and revealed the simultaneous activity of two subduction zones in Late Cretaceous time. These two subduction zones bound a separate oceanic plate within the Neotethys Ocean – the Anadolu Plate (Fig. 3, Gürer et al., 2016). The aim of my PhD research was to reconstruct the birth, evolution and destruction of this oceanic plate.

Tectonic problems require a multidisciplinary approach, in order to study the evolution of orogens and associated sedimentary basins. My research involved the integration of (1) structural analysis, (2) stratigraphy, (3) geochronology, (4) paleomagnetism, (5) plate reconstruction, and (6) mantle tomography (Fig. 2). The main goal was to obtain new data on the evolution of the Central and Eastern Anatolian regions through the analysis of spatial and temporal relationships of deformation archived in the geological record.

First, I collected kinematic data from sedimentary basins (Fig. 2) overlying ophiolitic relicts of the oceanic Anadolu Plate, as well as from the underlying accretionary complex (Gürer et al., 2018a). Here, it was especially useful to focus on syn-kinematic deformation recorded by sediments. To constrain the timing of this deformation, I used geochronological data coming from absolute age dating and biostratigraphy. The integrated reconstruction of the kinematic history of basins was used to develop concepts quantitatively constraining the tectonic history of the Anadolu Plate and its surrounding trenches in 2D (Gürer et al., 2016).


Fig. 3: The Ulukışla Basin (Central Anatolia) represents a forearc basin in Late Cretaceous to Eocene time which recorded the evolution of the Anadolu Plate. The basin has subsequently been strongly deformed during Eocene and younger collisional processes and is juxtaposed against the Aladağ range along the Ecemiş Fault. Credit: Derya Gürer.


There are, however, large vertical axis rotations constrained through paleomagnetic analysis within Anatolia, not taken into account in the workflow described in the previous paragraph. Therefore, paleomagnetic data from the Late Cretaceous to Miocene sedimentary basins were collected. These data identified coherently rotating domains and major tectonic structures that accommodated differential rotations between tectonic blocks (Gürer et al., 2018b).

Fig. 4: Simplified interpretation of the Late Cretaceous double subduction geometry in Anatolia and the Anadolu Plate.Credit: Derya Gürer.

Subsequently, a kinematic reconstruction of Anatolia back to the Late Cretaceous was built (Fig. 4) incorporating the timing of deformation obtained through structural analysis, stratigraphy, geochronology, and vertical axis rotations. This reconstruction provided first-order implications for the timing and geometry of subduction zones and revealed that the demise of the Anadolu Plate and collision in Anatolia was variable along the strike of the orogen, younging from the west to the east. The exact timing of collision in Eastern Anatolia will require future studies applying structural field geology, systematic analysis of the age and nature of magmatism, and thermochronology to constrain timing of regional exhumation, as well as detrital geochronology, providing information on the relative proximity of tectonic blocks through the provenance of sediments.


Finally, the resulting 2D kinematic reconstruction was tested against a mantle tomographic model (UU-07, Amaru, 2007; van der Meer et al., 2017) to gain insights into its 3D geometry. Mantle tomography images the present-day structure and positive seismic anomalies (blue colours in Fig. 5), which may be interpreted as subducted slabs. Comparing the convergence estimate obtained from the kinematic reconstruction with the imaged subducted lithosphere allowed to infer that the mantle structure in the Eastern Mediterranean holds record of not only the two strands of the Neotethys Ocean that existed in Anatolia, but also of the Paleotethys Ocean.


Fig. 5: Map view tomographic structure below the Eastern Mediterranean region at variable depths (increasing in depth from left to right). Blue colours generally represent positive, whereas red colours represent negative wave speed anomalies. Credit: Derya Gürer & Wim Spakman.

The combination of methods to unravel the geological record of Anatolia quantitatively constrained the evolution of subduction zones and of the Anadolu Plate. The reconstruction of the Anatolian double subduction system that existed in Late Cretaceous time has implications for the dynamics of multiple simultaneously active subduction zones.



Amaru, M.L., 2007. Global travel time tomography with 3-D reference models. PhD thesis, Utrecht University, The Netherlands.

Gürer, D., van Hinsbergen, D.J.J.D.J.J., Matenco, L., Corfu, F., Cascella, A., 2016. Kinematics of a former oceanic plate of the Neotethys revealed by deformation in the Ulukışla basin (Turkey). Tectonics 35, 2385–2416. https://doi.org/10.1002/2016TC004206

Gürer, D., Plunder, A., Kirst, F., Corfu, F., Schmid, S.M., van Hinsbergen, D.J.J., 2018a. A long-lived Late Cretaceous–early Eocene extensional province in Anatolia? Structural evidence from the Ivriz Detachment, southern central Turkey. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 481. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2017.10.008

Gürer, D., Hinsbergen, D.J.J. van, Özkaptan, M., Creton, I., Koymans, M.R., Cascella, A., Langereis, C.G., 2018b. Paleomagnetic constraints on the timing and distribution of Cenozoic rotations in Central and Eastern Anatolia. Solid Earth 9, 1–27. https://doi.org/10.5194/se-9-1-2018

Gurnis, M., Hall, C., Lavier, L., 2004. Evolving force balance during incipient subduction. Geochemistry Geophys. Geosystems 5, Q07001. https://doi.org/10.1029/2003GC000681

Matsuda, T., Isozaki, Y., 1991. Well-documented travel history of Mesozoic pelagic chert in Japan: from remote ocean to subduction zone. Tectonics 10, 475–499.

van der Meer, D.G., van Hinsbergen, D.J.J., Spakman, W., 2018. Atlas of the Underworld: slab remnants in the mantle, their sinking history, and a new outlook on lower mantle viscosity. Tectonophysics 723, 309–448.

Wakabayashi, J., 2015. Anatomy of a subduction complex: architecture of the Franciscan Complex, California, at multiple length and time scales. Int. Geol. Rev. 37–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/00206814.2014.998728