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The AAPG/Datapages Combined Publications Database

AAPG Bulletin


Volume: 55 (1971)

Issue: 1. (January)

First Page: 34

Last Page: 50

Title: Bathymetry and Paleoecology of Ouachita Geosyncline of Southeastern Oklahoma as Determined from Trace Fossils

Author(s): C. Kent Chamberlain (3)


Trace fossil assemblages from the Mississippian-Pennsylvanian rocks of the Ouachita Mountains, southeast Oklahoma, define a basin-to-shoal bathymetric profile. They include a deep-basin assemblage (Nereites) in the central Ouachitas, transitional assemblage (Chondrites) in the lower Atoka Formation of the frontal Ouachitas, littoral and sublittoral to bathyal assemblage (Cruziana and Zoophycos) in the Wapanucka Limestone, and shallow-shelf assemblage (Cruziana) in the upper Atoka Formation of the Arkoma basin.

The persistence of widespread, distinctive trace-fossil assemblages in the central Ouachitas, mainly feeding trails and burrows, through approximately 25,000 ft of Mississippian-Pennsylvanian rocks attests to the continuous hospitability of the flysch environment in a basin that remained deep despite isostatic and eustatic fluctuations. In the frontal Ouachitas, as the north slope of the geosyncline shifted north, the shallow-water environment was replaced by a flysch environment, and the trace-fossil assemblage of mainly dwelling and feeding burrows was replaced by a flysch facies with mainly feeding trails and feeding burrows. The southern edge of the Arkoma basin probably underwent subsidence and uplift, although only a littoral trace-fossil assemblage is exposed today.



Depositional environment of the Paleozoic sediments in the Ouachita geosyncline of southeast Oklahoma and southwest Arkansas has been a troublesome problem, and two diametrically opposing views persist. Honess (1923) recognized that most of the siliceous graptolitic shales of the early Paleozoic were deposited in deep water, but concluded that the late Paleozoic Stanley Shale was deposited as deltaic sediments. Miser and Purdue (1929) and Harlton (1938) shared this view of the Stanley Group and extended it to the Jackfork Group, Johns Valley Shale, and Atoka Formation. Cline and Shelburne (1959) and Cline (1960, 1966b) favored sedimentation in a deep trough comparable to flysch sequences of Europe. King (1961), Walthall (1967), and Morris (1964) also visualized a deep-trough environme t.

The correlation between sedimentary environment and the types of animals living in the environment is well displayed in the Mississippian-Pennsylvanian rocks of the Ouachita Mountains (Figs. 1, 2; Tables 1, 2). Trace-fossil assemblages define a basin-to-shoal bathymetric profile. At least four sedimentary environments and indicative trace fossils are present. They are (1) shoal facies of the upper Atoka Formation of the Arkoma basin with a Cruziana trace-fossil assemblage, (2) presubsidence shelf facies of the Wapanucka Limestone with a Cruziana and Zoophycos assemblage, (3) transitional (=slope) facies of the lower Atoka Formation of the frontal Ouachita Mountains with a Chondrites assemblage, and (4) basin facies of the central Ouachita Mountains with a Nereites assemblage.


The Ouachita Mountains in southwestern Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma contain the largest exposures of a mobile belt, the Ouachita geosyncline, whose orogenic history apparently was confined to the Paleozoic. This mobile belt has been traced in the subsurface by geophysical methods southeast toward the Appalachians in Alabama and Mississippi and southwest to the Marathon and Solitario uplifts of West Texas (Flawn, 1959).

The arcuate geanticline that makes up the larger structural feature of the Ouachita Mountains

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Fig. 1. Trace fossil localities in Ouachita Mountains, southeastern Oklahoma. Numbered localities are those from which trace fossils were illustrated in Chamberlain (1971). Complete list of localities is on file (see footnote 2).

Fig. 2. Mississippian-Pennsylvanian stratigraphy of Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma.

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is exposed for more than 200 mi from Atoka, Oklahoma, to Little Rock, Arkansas. The Cretaceous overlap covers the structure on the south and east. The Arkoma basin merges with the McAlester coal basin on the west and bounds the Ouachita Mountains on the west and north.

Three structural regions are involved in this study--the Arkoma basin (between Choctaw fault on the south and Northwest Oklahoma

Table 1. Summary of Sedimentation and Stratigraphy in Ouachita Mountains of Southeastern Oklahoma

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platform on the north), frontal Ouachita Mountains (between Ti Valley and Choctaw fault after proposal by Cline, 1966b, 1968), and central Ouachita Mountains (from Ti Valley to Choctaw anticlinorium). The details of the structure of these regions can be found in symposia of the region such as those by Dallas Geological Society and Ardmore Geological Society (Cline et al., 1959); Kansas Geological Society (Cline, 1966a); and the Oklahoma

Table 1. Continued. See caption on page 36.

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Fig. 3. Detailed stratigraphic sections from the frontal Ouachita Mountains. Locality 66, Wapanucka Limestone south of Red Oak, Oklahoma. Locality 67, Atoka Formation overlying locality 66. Locality 11, lower Atoka Formation approximately 9 mi east of Hartshorne, Oklahoma. Trace-fossil explanation on Figure 4; c.g., clay galls; lo., load cast; darkened units are ferruginous siltstones.

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City Geological Society (Cline, 1968). Thrusting has been extensive in the Ouachita Mountains and has placed shallow-water sediments in juxtaposition with deeper water sediments, brought increasingly older rocks to the surface toward the southeast, provided an almost complete view of the strata across the basin, and by uplift has allowed complete(?) removal of late orogenic facies in the Central Ouachitas.


Significant contrasts occur between Ouachita and Arbuckle facies and between early Paleozoic and late Paleozoic Ouachita facies. The Ouachita facies is characterized by siliceous clastic rocks compared with the dolomite and limestone of the Arbuckle facies. The early Paleozoic Ouachita facies, of approximately 5,000 ft, accumulated slowly in a sediment-starved basin dominated by siliceous mud. The late Paleozoic Ouachita facies totals approximately 25,000 ft, sandstone being a significant proportion of the total. The most significant features and references to the stratigraphy of the Ouachita Mountains are summarized on Table 1.

The types of sedimentary rocks and physical sedimentary structures in the Ouachita geosyncline are of considerable importance in interpreting depositional environment. Because these features have been described and discussed at length in the several papers on the Ouachita Mountains, the brief summary of Table 1 should be sufficient to familiarize the reader with the criteria used for determination of the sedimentary environment by Cline (1966b), Harlton (1938), Honess (1923), Miser and Purdue (1929), Morris (1964), Stark (1966), and Walthall (1967).


Seilacher (1964) documented Nereites, Zoophycos, and Cruziana facies by determining the diagnostic trace fossils, inorganic sedimentary structures, dominant lithologic characteristics, and probable depth ranges for each facies. He suggested bathyal conditions for the Nereites facies, sublittoral to bathyal conditions for the Zoophycos facies, and littoral to sublittoral for the Cruziana facies. These conclusions were based, in part, on worldwide observations on lateral and vertical relations of trace fossil and conventional fossil assemblages and types of sediments in rocks ranging in age from Cambrian to Holocene. The existence of bathymetrically controlled facies with characteristic trace fossils is supported, partly, by zoogeographic distributions in the modern oceans. The zoogeogr phic distribution is dependent on the adaptation achieved by the different animals to the several environmental factors. Environmental factors such as oxygen, temperature, substrate, salinity, turbidity, nutrition, etc., can be varied from place to place in shallow water. Correspondingly, there are many ecologic niches available in shallow-water environments. At increasing depths these factors become more constant and uniform over broader regions, and according to Ekman (1953), Menzies (1965), Sanders and Hessler (1969), Sokolova (1959), and Vinogradova (1962), the abundance and manner of distribution of food become increasingly more important. Consequently, there is a general decrease of animal life from shallow-water to deep-water environments according to Ekman (1953), Marshall (1954) Sanders and Hessler (1969), and Zenkevich (1954), and there is selection for limited ways of life.

In shallow waters, the food web begins as nutrients are taken up by photosynthesizing plants. Herbivores feed on the plants and carnivores feed on the herbivores or other carnivores. There is no photosynthesis below the photic zone, and animals living there are largely dependent on food settling from the overlying waters or carried in currents flowing from land. Most organic debris reaching the deepest parts of the ocean is generally chitinous exoskeletons or cellulose plant fragments. Bacteria convert such material to food and make up the first link in a new food web dominated by a carnivorous benthic population.

This manner of food distribution in the deep water creates a selection for deposit feeders. From deep-water bottom samples Sokolova (1959) and Sanders and Hessler (1969) found

Fig. 3. See caption on page 38.

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Fig. 4. Detailed stratigraphic sections from frontal Ouachita Mountains. Locality 29, north-northeast approximately 12 mi from Talihina, Oklahoma; lower Atoka Formation. Localities 8 and 12 east of Hartshorne, Oklahoma, 1.5 and 9.5 mi, respectively; upper Atoka Formation. (Scolica should be spelled, Scolicia.)

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Fig. 5. Detailed stratigraphic sections of lower Atoka Formation from central Ouachita Mountains. Locality 5, 5 mi northwest of Talihina, Oklahoma. Locality 1, 17 mi west of Talihina, Oklahoma. Locality 2, south of Big Cedar, Oklahoma, 3.5 mi south of crest of Kiamichi Mountain. Trace fossil explanation on Figure 4.

End_Page 41------------------------------

approximately 50 and 55 percent, respectively, of sediment-ingesting animals despite the fact that the fauna included Porifera, Actinaria, Octocorallia, Polychaeta, Mollusca, Decapoda, Isopoda, Holothurioidea, Pogonophora, and Asteroidea.

A few specific burrows and trails known from the modern deep oceans provide further comparison to the fossil record. Hulsemann (1966) described and illustrated a spiral marking from 3,400 and 3,600 m in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Bourne and Heezen (1965) described

Fig. 6. Summary and illustration of Nereites, Chondrites, Zoophycos, and Cruziana trace-fossil assemblages of Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma.

End_Page 42------------------------------

and illustrated slightly larger forms identified as enteropneust trails from depths greater than 4,000 m. Seilacher (1967) compared them to the trace fossil Helminthoida, but they could just as well belong to Spirophycus found in the Ouachita Mountains. D. B. Ericson in Bouma (1964) recognized migrating "U" forms from 3,800, 2,590, and 1,225 m that might be modern examples of the trace fossil Zoophycos. These just as well could belong to Lophoctenium found in the Ouachita Mountains.

Honess (1923) was probably the first to describe and illustrate trace fossils from the Ouachita Mountains. These came from the Silurian Blaylock Formation of the core area, and are Nereites. Branson (1966), Cline (1960), Fellows (1964), and Seely (1963) illustrated and/or described several occurrences of "Paleobulla-like" burrows, "worms," or trails in the Ouachita Mountains.

Seilacher (1964, 1967) cited the presence of the Nereites and Zoophycos assemblages in the Ouachita Mountains and Arkoma basin and suggested that the Cruziana assemblage should be found north of the Arkoma basin. Chamberlain (1971) described the morphology and ethology of many of the trace fossils found in the Ouachita Mountains and southern Arkoma basin and confirmed the presence of Nereites, Zoophycos, and Cruziana assemblages.

In the Ouachita Mountains a Chondrites facies is present in the Atoka Formation intermediate between the underlying Wapanucka Limestone and the upper Atoka Formation of the frontal Ouachitas, as well as between the central Ouachitas and the Arkoma basin. Most of the features cited for the basin flysch facies are present, but in different aspects. In the detailed sections measured and, in part, illustrated (Figs. 3-5) for the Ouachita Mountains, the sandstone-shale ratio is 1.0:2.0. In the lower shaly facies of the Atoka Formation in the frontal Ouachitas the amount of shale is 2 to 3 times that of sandstone. Thicknesses of the sandstones and shales are, respectively, 0.1 to 0.05 times and 0.5 to 0.3 times the average in the central Ouachitas. Graded bedding is uncommon. Tool marks and scour lineation predominate over flutes, whereas in the central Ouachitas flute marks are common. Ripple lamination is the main internal structure. Features indicative of turbidites are less common. Plants and other displaced fossils are common. The sandstones are graywacke to subgraywacke. Ball-and-pillow or load casts are present; other types of soft sediment flowage structures are uncommon. Higher in the section the facies more completely corresponds to the flysch facies of the basin (compare the detailed section of locality 12 in Fig. 4 to locality 11 in Fig. 3--the former grades up from the latter).

End_Page 43------------------------------

The trace-fossil assemblage found in the Chondrites facies of the frontal Ouachitas has elements of both shelf and basin facies. Chondrites expansus Sternberg is probably the most common form. Scalarituba is an important eurybathic form that dominates the deep basin and appears in the Chondrites assemblage less commonly. Irregular Paleodictyon are common compared to the regular forms of the basin facies. Phycosiphon and Lophoctenium are common forms of the Chondrites assemblage; Phycosiphon occurs in shelf facies and basin facies. Lophoctenium is mainly in basin facies. Asterichnus lawrencensis [Bandel (1967)] is a common shallow-shelf form from the Pennsylvanian of Kansas that also appears in the Chondrites assemblage.

Figure 6 illustrates and summarizes the trace-fossil ichnogenera for all four assemblages found in the Ouachita Mountains, the behavioral types, and the most common type of preservation.

Table 2. Trace Fossil Assemblages and Their Distributions in Ouachita Mountains of Southeastern Oklahoma

End_Page 44------------------------------


As mentioned in the introduction, Harlton (1938), Honess (1923), Miser and Purdue (1929), and Seely (1963) favored mud-flat and deltaic depositional environments for the late Paleozoic sequences in the Ouachita Mountains. Their decisions were based primarily on the presence of ripple sandstone and thick, dark shale and lack of conventional fossils. Cline (1960, 1966b), Cline and Shelburne (1959), King (1961), Morris (1964), and Walthall (1967) considered these features, as well as the siliceous shales, turbidites, and wild-flysch, and suggested a deep-water environment.

Stark (1966) summarized the implications of the siliceous sponge spicules, radiolarians, arenaceous foraminifers, and necessary slope required by turbidity flows in the Atoka Formation of the central Ouachitas, and concluded that deep bathyal depths were probably present. The Foraminifera were compared with forms

Table 2. Continued. See caption on page 44.

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from the European flysch stated to be characteristic of deep, cold waters; however, most of the genera listed are cosmopolitan, some are endemic, and only a few are polar.

Goldstein and Hendricks (1962) declared that the Wapanucka Limestone of the frontal Ouachitas was deposited above wave base in a clear, open, well-aerated sea. This view is supported by several lines of evidence. Calcareous algae and small rugose corals appear in growth position at several places in the Wapanucka; the algae required sunlight for photosynthesis and presumably the rugose corals had symbiotic algae as do modern scleractinians. Spiney cidaroid echinoids are present essentially intact, and possibly are analogous to modern Cidaria that wedges into rocky shores and reef crests. Numerous sponges, Haplistion apletos Rigby, Phacellopegma schizoderma Finks, and Arakespongia mega Rigby, were found in the Wapanucka Limestone in growth position. Although Phacellopegma is seen to pi neer into organic-rich carbonate and argillaceous carbonate environments, the ecologic significance of these sponges has not been determined; however, by comparison only glass sponges, Dictyospongia, have been found in the flysch facies of the central and frontal Ouachitas (Rigby et al., 1970).

The existence of the Nereites, Zoophycos, and Cruziana assemblages in and near the Ouachita Mountains as cited by Seilacher (1964, 1967) and Chamberlain (1971), and of the Chondrites assemblage cited in this paper provides excellent guides to the bathymetric conditions in the Ouachita geosyncline. Table 2 tabulates the distribution of the assemblages found in the central and frontal Ouachita Mountains and southern Arkoma basin.

The distribution of the Nereites assemblage demonstrates that a bathyal to abyssal environment persisted in the central Ouachitas during Mississippian-Pennsylvanian time.

Because modern restricted trenches, polar basins, and narrow seaways generally differ slightly from the major ocean basins in temperature, salinity, turbidity, and other environmental factors, it is particularly difficult to place values on these factors for an ancient trend such as the Ouachita geosyncline. However, using trace fossils as environmental indicators, it is possible to dispel a previous view on oxygenation.

Cline (1960, p. 97), Johnson (1968), and Seely (1963) mentioned the common occurrence of burrows and trails in the central Ouachitas. They also reported that the dark color of the shales is indicative of a reducing environment developed under restricted, stagnant conditions, and thus accounted for a supposed meager benthonic fauna. Stark (1966) agreed, because he found a depauperate Foraminifera fauna and a decrease of sponge spicules and radiolarians in the Atoka Formation of Rich Mountain. Whatever the condition of reduction was, the widespread presence of burrowing animals through approximately 25,000 ft of rock disclaims any prolonged or widespread condition of stagnation in the upper few feet of sediment at the sediment-water interface, suggests essentially normal salinity, and a tests to the continuous hospitability of the environment.

In the frontal Ouachitas only the Wapanucka Limestone and Atoka Formation were examined for trace fossils. The rock types and Cruziana assemblage indicate that the Wapanucka Limestone was at shoal level and included beach, bar, bank, lagoon, and channel environments with their particular inherent environmental factors. As the basin migrated north, subsidence between sublittoral and bathyal depths is registered where a Zoophycos assemblage appeared in the sandy and spiculitic section of the upper Wapanucka Limestone. The Chondrites assemblage found in the lower Atoka Formation of the frontal Ouachitas has elements of shelf and basin. Its transitional position points to bathyal conditions implying lower temperatures, less oxygen, decreasing illumination, etc. From the lower Atoka Format on of the frontal Ouachitas to the upper Atoka Formation, there is a gradational change from Chondrites facies to Nereites facies of the

Fig. 7. See caption on page 47.

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Fig. 7. Vertical relations of sedimentary environments and trace-fossil assemblages in selected sections of transition from Wapanucka Limestone to Atoka Formation in frontal Ouachita Mountains. Nereites assemblage: a. Sustergichnus, b. Phycosiphon, c. Chondrites, d. Scalarituba, e. Chondrites, f. Lophoctenium, g. Squamodictyon. Zoophycos assemblage: h. Zoophycos, i. Conostichus, j. Asterosoma. Cruziana assemblage: k. Rosselia, l. Pilichna, m. Lanicoidichna.

End_Page 47------------------------------

Fig. 8. Summary of changes in bathymetric profile in Ouachita geosyncline of southeastern Oklahoma as determined from trace fossil assemblages and types of sediments and inorganic sedimentary features. Upper left profile is for southern Arkoma basin, lower left profile for frontal Ouachitas, and lower right profile for central Ouachitas.

End_Page 48------------------------------

cold, dark, deep basin. Figure 7 graphically illustrates these trace fossil distributions in some of the better Wapanucka sections.

The presence of the Cruziana assemblage of the Atoka Formation in the southern Arkoma basin and the inorganic sedimentary structures and rock types provide evidence for littoral and sublittoral environments.

There are additional observations that have bathymetric and ecologic overtones. The Ouachita geosyncline eventually ceased to subside and began to be thrust northwest. Consequently, the basin was filled at some point and presumably held a shallow-water fauna. This has not been found in the trace-fossil assemblage nor in the rocks preserved in the central Ouachitas, either because erosion has removed all late orogenic facies or because the complexity of the situation has prevented recognition of the facies.

The Chondrites facies is believed to be bathyal, and probably represents the upper slope. The Johns Valley Shale and similar sequences along the axial margins bearing massive slumps, slides, and similar subaqueous features cited by Rich (1950) probably represent the lower slope. A large volume of sand is present on the shelf on the north and in the basin on the south. Much of the sand mass coming from the north evidently bypassed the Chondrites facies via channels to the basin and/or spread as wedges at growth faults. The Red Oak Sandstone of Bowsher and Johnson (1968) appears as a thick wedge, with features suggesting rapid turbidite sedimentation. The sandstone is essentially barren of burrows such as would be the case in continuous rapid sedimentation. The thin-bedded, ripple-lamin ted sandstone beds of the Chondrites facies probably were deposited when sands were disturbed by storms and carried by weak, infrequent currents across the slope parallel with the axis, or by infrequent, lightly loaded turbidity flows. These sandstone beds are in the range of thickness--less than 10 cm--that Hubert (1964) found typical of the slope facies in the western Atlantic Ocean.


The axial sediments of the Ouachita geosyncline of Mississippian-Pennsylvanian age are in the central Ouachita Mountains. The geosyncline is distinguished by a flysch facies that is made up of repetitive sandstone and shale. The beds are relatively thick with fluted soles, and turbidite features are common. A mud substrate was normal. A Nereites trace fossil assemblage occupied the mud environment with a widespread persistence proving that circulation and oxygen were normal near the sediment-water interface.

A Chondrites assemblage is present in the Atoka Formation of the frontal Ouachitas. The sandstone is thin bedded with tooled soles and ripple lamination. This facies developed as the basin spread north and northwest across the shallow-water environment of the Wapanucka Limestone. Environments of intermediate Zoophycos assemblage, and shallow depth Cruziana assemblage are present in the Wapanucka Limestone.

The upper Atoka Formation of the Arkoma basin was deposited in shallow-marine or marginal-marine environments and contains a Cruziana assemblage.

Figure 8 shows graphically the bathymetric profiles for the southern Arkoma basin, frontal and central Ouachita Mountains.

Fig. 8. See caption on page 48.


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End_Page 49------------------------------

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(3) University of Wisconsin. Present address: P. O. Box 6216, Cherry Creek Station, Denver, Colorado 80206.

Grateful appreciation is given to David L. Clark, University of Wisconsin, for his guidance in research and manuscript preparation, and to Lewis M. Cline for acting as advisor of my field area and critic of the manuscript. Thanks are given L. R. Laudon and L. C. Pray for criticisms of the manuscript, and to J. D. Howard for providing the opportunity to spend four weeks at the University of Georgia Marine Institute, Sapelo Island, Georgia, studying modern marine environments.

Some subsistence was provided by National Science Foundation Summer Fellowships for Teaching Assistants, 1967 and 1968, and University of Wisconsin Summer Fellowship, 1969. Field expenses and research materials were paid by Oklahoma Geological Survey, 1967 and 1968, and Sigma Xi Grant-in-Aid of Research, 1968.

Copyright 1997 American Association of Petroleum Geologists

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