Bioturbation, heavy mineral concentration, and high gamma-ray activity in the Lower Cretaceous McMurray Formation, Canada

Milovan Fustic, Rajeev Nair, Andreas Wetzel, Raza Siddiqui, William Matthews, Raphael Wust, Manuel Bringue, Jagos Radovic

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In the Lower Cretaceous McMurray Formation (Alberta, Canada), many intervals of intensely bioturbated (Bioturbation Index = 5–6) fine-grained sediments are characterized by high gamma-ray (GR) readings. Several methods, including sedimentary facies analysis, thin-section petrography, handheld spectral gamma-ray, portable X-ray fluorescence, X-ray diffraction, inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry, microprobe of K-feldspar, energy dispersive spectroscopy, and detrital zircon geochronology by laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry, were used to investigate the interval of interest in core samples. The mineralogical analysis shows that these intervals are enriched in heavy mineral grains, and particularly in zircons. The content of radioactive elements is variable. Thorium is commonly elevated up to three times, uranium nil to two times, and potassium content usually remains normal. The studied intervals consist of interbedded, bitumen-saturated cross-bedded and/or ripple cross-laminated sandstone (high-energy deposits) and light-gray bioturbated mudstone (low-energy deposits), commonly addressed as inclined heterolithic strata (IHS). IHS represent tidally influenced, brackish-water, upper point-bar deposits. The zircon grains become concentrated while hydraulic processes interact with bioturbation: the burrowing animals cause significant sediment mixing that allows the lightest sediment particles to go back into the suspension. Additionally, bioturbation increases the surface roughness along the sediment-water interface and, causes more turbulent flow, allowing for quartz and other light grains to be removed by traction and/or saltation, while dispersed heavier zircon grains become trapped and concentrated in open burrows. So far, this study is the first to demonstrate the importance of bioturbation in the enrichment of zircon grains in IHS. The interaction of bioturbation and hydraulic processes explains the apparently counter-intuitive enrichment of heavy minerals in a low-energy depositional setting. This scenario likely applies to numerous intervals characterized by similar GR and/or zirconium spikes across the McMurray Formation. Furthermore, it can be expected that in other sedimentary basins and stratigraphic units, similar studies will demonstrate that the proposed mechanism is universal.

Original languageEnglish
Article number110187
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Publication statusPublished - Feb 15 2021


  • Biosphere
  • Ichnology
  • Point bar
  • Provenance
  • Zircons

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Palaeontology


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