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Concept: Plate tectonics


A fragment of continental crust has been postulated to underlie the young plume-related lavas of the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius based on the recovery of Proterozoic zircons from basaltic beach sands. Here we document the first U-Pb zircon ages recovered directly from 5.7 Ma Mauritian trachytic rocks. We identified concordant Archaean xenocrystic zircons ranging in age between 2.5 and 3.0 Ga within a trachyte plug that crosscuts Older Series plume-related basalts of Mauritius. Our results demonstrate the existence of ancient continental crust beneath Mauritius; based on the entire spectrum of U-Pb ages for old Mauritian zircons, we demonstrate that this ancient crust is of central-east Madagascar affinity, which is presently located ∼700 km west of Mauritius. This makes possible a detailed reconstruction of Mauritius and other Mauritian continental fragments, which once formed part of the ancient nucleus of Madagascar and southern India.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Igneous rock, India, Indian Ocean, Madagascar, Basalt, Lava, Mauritius


The Mid-Cayman spreading centre is an ultraslow-spreading ridge in the Caribbean Sea. Its extreme depth and geographic isolation from other mid-ocean ridges offer insights into the effects of pressure on hydrothermal venting, and the biogeography of vent fauna. Here we report the discovery of two hydrothermal vent fields on the Mid-Cayman spreading centre. The Von Damm Vent Field is located on the upper slopes of an oceanic core complex at a depth of 2,300 m. High-temperature venting in this off-axis setting suggests that the global incidence of vent fields may be underestimated. At a depth of 4,960 m on the Mid-Cayman spreading centre axis, the Beebe Vent Field emits copper-enriched fluids and a buoyant plume that rises 1,100 m, consistent with >400 °C venting from the world’s deepest known hydrothermal system. At both sites, a new morphospecies of alvinocaridid shrimp dominates faunal assemblages, which exhibit similarities to those of Mid-Atlantic vents.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Hydrothermal vent, Caribbean, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Seafloor spreading, Mid-ocean ridge


A rise in the oxygen content of the atmosphere and oceans is one of the most popular explanations for the relatively late and abrupt appearance of animal life on Earth. In this scenario, Earth’s surface environment failed to meet the high oxygen requirements of animals up until the middle to late Neoproterozoic Era (850-542 million years ago), when oxygen concentrations sufficiently rose to permit the existence of animal life for the first time. Although multiple lines of geochemical evidence support an oxygenation of the Ediacaran oceans (635-542 million years ago), roughly corresponding with the first appearance of metazoans in the fossil record, the oxygen requirements of basal animals remain unclear. Here we show that modern demosponges, serving as analogs for early animals, can survive under low-oxygen conditions of 0.5-4.0% present atmospheric levels. Because the last common ancestor of metazoans likely exhibited a physiology and morphology similar to that of a modern sponge, its oxygen demands may have been met well before the enhanced oxygenation of the Ediacaran Period. Therefore, the origin of animals may not have been triggered by a contemporaneous rise in the oxygen content of the atmosphere and oceans. Instead, other ecological and developmental processes are needed to adequately explain the origin and earliest evolution of animal life on Earth.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Evolution, Earth, Plate tectonics, Animal, Atmosphere, Cambrian explosion, Neoproterozoic


Eruptive phenomena at all scales, from hydrothermal geysers to flood basalts, can potentially be initiated or modulated by external mechanical perturbations. We present evidence for the triggering of magmatism on a global scale by the Chicxulub meteorite impact at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, recorded by transiently increased crustal production at mid-ocean ridges. Concentrated positive free-air gravity and coincident seafloor topographic anomalies, associated with seafloor created at fast-spreading rates, suggest volumes of excess magmatism in the range of ~105to 106km3. Widespread mobilization of existing mantle melt by post-impact seismic radiation can explain the volume and distribution of the anomalous crust. This massive but short-lived pulse of marine magmatism should be considered alongside the Chicxulub impact and Deccan Traps as a contributor to geochemical anomalies and environmental changes at K-Pg time.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Basalt, Dinosaur, Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, Flood basalt, Chicxulub crater, Deccan Traps, Shiva crater


The Messina Strait, that separates peninsular Italy from Sicily, is one of the most seismically active areas of the Mediterranean. The structure and seismotectonic setting of the region are poorly understood, although the area is highly populated and important infrastructures are planned there. New seismic reflection data have identified a number of faults, as well as a crustal scale NE-trending anticline few km north of the strait. These features are interpreted as due to active right-lateral transpression along the north-eastern Sicilian offshore, coexisting with extensional and right-lateral transtensional tectonics in the southern Messina Strait. This complex tectonic network appears to be controlled by independent and overlapping tectonic settings, due to the presence of a diffuse transfer zone between the SE-ward retreating Calabria subduction zone relative to slab advance in the western Sicilian side.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Italy, Calabria, Sicily, Southern Italy, Naples, Sicilian language, Palermo


Cave shrimps from the genera Typhlatya, Stygiocaris and Typhlopatsa (Atyidae) are restricted to specialised coastal subterranean habitats or nearby freshwaters and have a highly disconnected distribution (Eastern Pacific, Caribbean, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Madagascar, Australia). The combination of a wide distribution and a limited dispersal potential suggests a large-scale process has generated this geographic pattern. Tectonic plates that fragment ancestral ranges (vicariance) has often been assumed to cause this process, with the biota as passive passengers on continental blocks. The ancestors of these cave shrimps are believed to have inhabited the ancient Tethys Sea, with three particular geological events hypothesised to have led to their isolation and divergence; (1) the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, (2) the breakup of Gondwana, and (3) the closure of the Tethys Seaway. We test the relative contribution of vicariance and dispersal in the evolutionary history of this group using mitochondrial genomes to reconstruct phylogenetic and biogeographic scenarios with fossil-based calibrations. Given that the Australia/Madagascar shrimp divergence postdates the Gondwanan breakup, our results suggest both vicariance (the Atlantic opening) and dispersal. The Tethys closure appears not to have been influential, however we hypothesise that changing marine currents had an important early influence on their biogeography.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Ocean, Gondwana, Biogeography, Black Sea, Pangaea


Serpentinization-fueled systems in the cool, hydrated forearc mantle of subduction zones may provide an environment that supports deep chemolithoautotrophic life. Here, we examine serpentinite clasts expelled from mud volcanoes above the Izu-Bonin-Mariana subduction zone forearc (Pacific Ocean) that contain complex organic matter and nanosized Ni-Fe alloys. Using time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry and Raman spectroscopy, we determined that the organic matter consists of a mixture of aliphatic and aromatic compounds and functional groups such as amides. Although an abiotic or subduction slab-derived fluid origin cannot be excluded, the similarities between the molecular signatures identified in the clasts and those of bacteria-derived biopolymers from other serpentinizing systems hint at the possibility of deep microbial life within the forearc. To test this hypothesis, we coupled the currently known temperature limit for life, 122 °C, with a heat conduction model that predicts a potential depth limit for life within the forearc at ∼10,000 m below the seafloor. This is deeper than the 122 °C isotherm in known oceanic serpentinizing regions and an order of magnitude deeper than the downhole temperature at the serpentinized Atlantis Massif oceanic core complex, Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We suggest that the organic-rich serpentinites may be indicators for microbial life deep within or below the mud volcano. Thus, the hydrated forearc mantle may represent one of Earth’s largest hidden microbial ecosystems. These types of protected ecosystems may have allowed the deep biosphere to thrive, despite violent phases during Earth’s history such as the late heavy bombardment and global mass extinctions.

Concepts: Spectroscopy, Earth, Plate tectonics, Geology, Earthquake, Volcano, Crust, Convergent boundary


Gravity models are powerful tools for mapping tectonic structures, especially in the deep ocean basins where the topography remains unmapped by ships or is buried by thick sediment. We combined new radar altimeter measurements from satellites CryoSat-2 and Jason-1 with existing data to construct a global marine gravity model that is two times more accurate than previous models. We found an extinct spreading ridge in the Gulf of Mexico, a major propagating rift in the South Atlantic Ocean, abyssal hill fabric on slow-spreading ridges, and thousands of previously uncharted seamounts. These discoveries allow us to understand regional tectonic processes and highlight the importance of satellite-derived gravity models as one of the primary tools for the investigation of remote ocean basins.

Concepts: United States, Plate tectonics, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Stream


Earth’s tectonic plates are generally considered to be driven largely by negative buoyancy associated with subduction of oceanic lithosphere. In this context, mid-ocean ridges (MORs) are passive plate boundaries whose divergence accommodates flow driven by subduction of oceanic slabs at trenches. We show that over the past 80 million years (My), the East Pacific Rise (EPR), Earth’s dominant MOR, has been characterized by limited ridge-perpendicular migration and persistent, asymmetric ridge accretion that are anomalous relative to other MORs. We reconstruct the subduction-related buoyancy fluxes of plates on either side of the EPR. The general expectation is that greater slab pull should correlate with faster plate motion and faster spreading at the EPR. Moreover, asymmetry in slab pull on either side of the EPR should correlate with either ridge migration or enhanced plate velocity in the direction of greater slab pull. Based on our analysis, none of the expected correlations are evident. This implies that other forces significantly contribute to EPR behavior. We explain these observations using mantle flow calculations based on globally integrated buoyancy distributions that require core-mantle boundary heat flux of up to 20 TW. The time-dependent mantle flow predictions yield a long-lived deep-seated upwelling that has its highest radial velocity under the EPR and is inferred to control its observed kinematics. The mantle-wide upwelling beneath the EPR drives horizontal components of asthenospheric flows beneath the plates that are similarly asymmetric but faster than the overlying surface plates, thereby contributing to plate motions through viscous tractions in the Pacific region.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Lithosphere, Flux, Asthenosphere, Seafloor spreading, Mid-ocean ridge, Oceanic crust


Large impacts provide a mechanism for resurfacing planets through mixing near-surface rocks with deeper material. Central peaks are formed from the dynamic uplift of rocks during crater formation. As crater size increases, central peaks transition to peak rings. Without samples, debate surrounds the mechanics of peak-ring formation and their depth of origin. Chicxulub is the only known impact structure on Earth with an unequivocal peak ring, but it is buried and only accessible through drilling. Expedition 364 sampled the Chicxulub peak ring, which we found was formed from uplifted, fractured, shocked, felsic basement rocks. The peak-ring rocks are cross-cut by dikes and shear zones and have an unusually low density and seismic velocity. Large impacts therefore generate vertical fluxes and increase porosity in planetary crust.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Petroleum, Solar System, Planet, Bulk density, Venus, Granite, Impact crater