The complete geologic history of the Fossil Basin involves many stratigraphic units. Most of these are not exposed within the monument itself but are well known from outcrops outside the boundaries of the monument and from deep wells (Fig. 4).
At the base of the stratigraphic section are rocks of Precambrian age. These have not been penetrated by wells within the Fossil Basin but should occur as much as 25,000 ft beneath the surface. They probably consist of metamorphic and intrusive rocks. Beginning about 600 million years ago, at the beginning of Cambrian time, sedimentary deposits accumulated. These are both marine and continental in origin and range in age from early Cambrian (600 million years old) to early Tertiary (50 million years old). Some 34 geologic formations are recognized in this thick section, a list of which follows:
Within the monument itself the oldest rocks exposed are those of the Thaynes Limestone near Prow Point. As will be seen in the discussion of the structure of the Fossil Basin, all of the rocks beneath the Evanston Formation are folded and faulted and within the monument are buried by deposits of Tertiary age. For this reason detailed discussion of stratigraphic units will be confined to those rocks that can be seen within the boundaries of the monument or closely adjacent to it (Fig. 5). The distribution of the various formations within the monument is illustrated in Figs. 7 and 8.
At the very northeastern corner of Fossil Butte National Monument can be seen an outcrop of the Thaynes Limestone of Triassic age, a marine unit deposited some 200 million years ago. This formation is noted for its rich and varied assemblage of marine fossils, mostly forms related to oysters and clams. The Thaynes Limestone consists predominantly of sandy, gray limestone and green-gray limey siltstones. The formation weathers to a dark brown in the lower part and a grayish-yellow in the upper. The fact that the Thaynes Limestone is exposed in the monument at all is because of the faulting that took place just prior to the deposition of the Evanston Formation of latest Cretaceous and earliest Tertiary age (refer to section on structure) and the erosion of the Tertiary rocks that once covered it.
Although not seen within the boundaries of the Fossil Butte National Monument, the Evanston Formation is exposed just south of Highway 30N, 1.5 miles southeast of the southeast corner of the monument. The Evanston was not involved in the complex folding and faulting but it is somewhat disturbed and rests under the Wasatch Formation with angular uncomformity. The Evanston Formation bridges the time boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. In the lower part of the unit are found many fossil leaves, pollen, and spores and a jaw of the horned dinosaur Triceratops that prove its Cretaceous age, and in the upper part are found fossil mammals of Paleocene age.
The Evanston Formation has been studied in detail by Oriel and Tracey (1970). These authors divide the formation into three members. The lowest, which they called the Lower Member, is predominantly "gray to very dark gray mudstone, siltstone, claystone and gray carbonaceous sandstone." The Lower Member reaches a thickness of 500 ft in some places. Above and in part interfingering with the Lower Member is a 1000 ft thick unit that was named the Hams Fork Conglomerate Member. This unit consists of beds of boulder conglomerate interstratified with thick beds of coarse, partly conglomeratic brown sandstone and gray mudstone. Where the Lower Member of the Evanston is missing, the Hams Fork Conglomerate forms the base of the formation.
The Upper Member of the Evanston Formation is termed by Oriel and Tracey (1970) the Main Body. It is more than a thousand feet thick and the lower part intertongues with the Hams Fork Conglomerate. The Main Body is "light to dark gray carbonaceous sandy to clayey siltstone interbedded with gray, tan, yellow and brown sandstone and conglomerate and carbonaceous to lignitic claystone." It is this Main Body that can be seen along the highway just southeast of the monument.
The types of sediments and fossils found in the Evanston indicate that the formation was deposited by streams on flood plains and in marshes and ponds. A subtropical climate is indicated and the area was heavily wooded.
The term Wasatch was first used by Hayden (1869:91) as follows:
The Wasatch is well exposed in Fossil Basin. There the unit was regarded by Veatch (1907) as a group and divided by him into three formations: the Almy, Fowkes, and Knight. He wrote (1907:88):
Veatch, however, erred in his field work and did not realize that the Fowkes Formation had been downfaulted into the position in which he saw it (Tracey and Oriel 1959; Eardley 1959). The Fowkes is actually the youngest of the three formations of Veatch and is considerably later in age than the true Wasatch.
The Almy and Knight formations are not separable (Oriel and Tracey 1970:16), and can be seen to grade into each other at the basin edges.
The Almy and Knight, as defined by Veatch, are probably different facies of Wasatch, the Almy being a more peripheral facies and the Knight a more basinal facies (Oriel and Tracey 1970). These authors proposed that the terms Almy and Knight be dropped and that the name Wasatch be applied to all these rocks to avoid confusion.
The latest subdivision of the Wasatch Formation in the Fossil Basin is that of Oriel and Tracey. The members of the Wasatch Formation they propose are described in order from oldest to youngest.
BASAL CONGLOMERATE MEMBER. This member has only local development in Fossil Basin. Where found, it is a lenticular conglomerate with pebbles and cobbles of buff and tan sandstone from the Nugget Sandstone and limestone fragments from the Thaynes and Twin Creek formations.
The basal conglomerate is essentially a channel fill in ancient stream beds cut into Mesozoic rocks.
LOWER MEMBER. This is an irregular sequence of flood-plain and stream-channel deposits. It is exposed along the southern part of the Tunp Range and extends into the far western section of Fossil Butte National Monument just below Prow Point.
Mudstone is the main rock type. It can be tan, brown, pink, red, or gray in color. Black, carbonaceous siltstones are also present. Gray sandstone that weathers yellow or brown and coarse-grained, cross-bedded conglomerate and sandstone are also prominent. Limestone occurs as thin lenses and is often brown, platy, and carbonaceous.
It is interesting to note that the Lower Member is intermediate not only in stratigraphic position but also in color and composition between the underlying Evanston Formation and overlying Main Body of the Wasatch Formation. The Lower Member thus appears to represent a gradual change in either climatic and/or sedimentary conditions in Fossil Basin (Oriel and Tracey 1970).
MAIN BODY. This unit of the Wasatch Formation is that part of the formation which produces the spectacular red-colored badlands in Fossil Butte National Monument. Particularly typical exposures can be seen in the south facing scarp of Fossil Butte where the Main Body makes up the lower portion of the butte.
The most remarkable feature of the Main Body is its color. On the lower slopes of Fossil Butte are bands of bright to dull red, pink, purple, yellow, and gray color arranged in various patterns. This unit is best observed at a distance, especially after a rain. The bright hues of the Wasatch contrast markedly with the whites and tans of the overlying Green River Formation.
Individual bands of color range from 1 to 10 ft thick (Oriel and Tracey 1970:78). The colors are brightest in the upper part of the member and drabber in the coarser grained lower part.
The predominant rock types in the Main Body are banded, variegated mudstone with interlayered sandstone, conglomerate, marlstone, siltstone, and claystone.
The upper part of the Main Body is mainly mudstone composed of fine silt and very fine, bedded sand with a clay binder. Conglomerates occur as channel fills and contain calcium carbonate as cement as do a number of sandstone and siltstone layers in the upper Main Body.
Conglomerates and sandstone are more common in the lower part of the Main Body. Some are part of Veatch's old Almy Formation. They are best developed along the edge of Fossil Basin. The Main Body overlaps the Evanston Formation in some places and may rest directly on Mesozoic or Paleozoic rocks.
SANDSTONE TONGUE. This is a tongue of cross-bedded sandstone. It is brown in color and is composed mostly of quartz with some black chert grains. This unit is limited in distribution to the south of Fossil Butte National Monument. The Sandstone Tongue thins and pinches out to the north and is not present within the monument. The area of pinchout represents the shoreline at one stage of Fossil Lake. The Sandstone Tongue wedges into the Fossil Butte Member of the Green River Formation. The sediment sources were probably the Uinta Mountains at the south edge of Fossil Basin. Tectonic events caused an uplift and erosion of Mesozoic and Paleozoic rocks in the Uintas and debris was deposited in Fossil Lake as an encroaching delta of sand. When deposition of the sand halted, the lake expanded and covered the sand, encasing it within the shales of the Green River Formation.
The Sandstone Tongue can be traced into the Main Body of the Wasatch, hence its assignment to the Wasatch Formation.
MUDSTONE TONGUE. This tongue of the Wasatch Formation can be seen in the northwestern part of Fossil Butte National Monument and over most of the northern part of Fossil Basin. In the area of its distribution, the Mudstone Tongue separates the underlying Fossil Butte Member of the Green River Formation from the overlying Angelo Member of the Green River Formation. The tongue thins and disappears to the south, that is, basinward. As with the Sandstone Tongue, the edges of the Mudstone Tongue where it pinches out represent an ancient shoreline of Fossil Lake. To the north and west the Mudstone Tongue merges with the Tunp Member of the Wasatch Formation.
The Mudstone Tongue is a composite of dark-red mudstone which becomes lighter in color basinward, changing to light red, pink, or greenish-gray claystone. The unit is a mixture of silt and clay derived from the north and west, and was deposited as a large delta in Fossil Lake.
An interesting aspect of the Mudstone Tongue is the presence of algal logs. These are cylinders of limestone that apparently formed as an encrustation of calcium carbonate around logs and branches that fell into the edge of the lake. The calcium carbonate resulted from the action of algae which grew around the log. Successive growths of algae resulted in successive layers of calcium carbonate being deposited.
BULLPEN MEMBER. This uppermost member of the Wasatch Formation is found mostly to the west and south of the monument. A few, small, isolated caps on the top of the Green River Formation east of Prow Point occur within the monument. These low hills, mere bumps, are remnants of a once more extensive distribution of the Bullpen Member.
Veatch (1907:99) originally considered what is now called the Bullpen Member as being the Bridger Formation, this was based mostly on the Bullpen's position above the Green River Formation rather than on any lithologic resemblance to the Bridger. The Bullpen is much redder in color than the Bridger.
In early work Tracey and Oriel (1959:729) called these beds an upper tongue of the Wasatch and have since named them the Bullpen Member.
The Bullpen Member is lithologically very like the Main Body of the Wasatch and can be traced into the peripheral units of the Wasatch Formation.
The rocks included within the Bullpen Member are layered sequences of red, pink, gray, and green claystone and mudstone. Bentonite is present in some claystone beds and causes sloughing because of its property of expanding when wet. Some sandstones are present in the northern areas of the member's distribution. Limestones are also present. They are thin and slabby and have a brown, white, or gray color. Some contain varying amounts of clay. A conglomerate is present in the upper part of the Bullpen toward the basin periphery and merges with the Tunp Member of the Wasatch Formation.
The Bullpen Member is conformable with the underlying Angelo Member of the Green River Formation. The contact is a transitional one reflecting a gradual change from the lake environment of the Green River Formation through a swamp environment to that of a flood plain. The light-colored, fine-grained shales, marlstones, and limestones of the Green River Formation grade upward into drabber, coarser grained clay and mudstones of the Bullpen Member as a reflection of this change of environments.
TUNP MEMBER. This peripheral unit of the Wasatch Formation was first described by Oriel and Tracey in 1970. It is not exposed in the monument, but forms a belt of outcrops around the edge of Fossil Basin and in channels cut at right angles to the basin edge.
The Tunp Member is seen to intertongue with nearly all of the Wasatch and Green River formations. The member grades laterally basinward from coarse, angular conglomerates to fine mudstone. Two limestone tongues of the Green River Formation are interbedded with the Tunp, indicating that at least twice there was major expansion of the lake.
Lithologically, the Tunp Member is a diamictite. This is a sedimentary rock with a wide range of particle sizes. The Tunp is best described as a red, conglomeratic, sandy mudstone with angular, poorly rounded to smooth, well-rounded clasts with a size range from pebble to boulder. There is no bedding or orientation of clasts.
The Tunp Member probably originated from mudflows and gravity sliding (Tracey et al. 1961). Environmental studies indicate that the area had a warm, humid climate. This would cause deep weathering of the surrounding slopes. This weathered material would then be a prime source to be acted upon by rain, gravity, and possibly earthquakes. These agents of deposition would then cause the material to flow and be deposited with little chance for sorting and rounding of the rock particles. The result was a belt of coarse, unsorted detritus on the basin edges now called the Tunp Member.
AGE OF THE WASATCH FORMATION. The exact age of the units within the Wasatch Formation can be determined only if fossils are present. None has been found in the basal conglomerates but it is believed to be earliest Eocene. The Lower Member is also not dated with fossils but is believed to be very early Eocene. A number of fossil mammals are known from the Main Body of the Wasatch Formation. The lower part is early, early Eocene as demonstrated by the presence of a very primitive ungulate, Haplomylus speirianus. In the upper part of the Main Body another primitive ungulate, Hyopsodus browni, is found which indicates a mid to early Eocene age. The Mudstone and Sandstone tongues are not dated by means of fossils but the stratigraphic relationships indicate an early Eocene age. Fossil mollusks in the Bullpen Member are not completely diagnostic but suggest either a late early Eocene (Lost Cabinian) (Fig. 6) or mid-Eocene age. The Tunp Member interfingering as it does with the entire Wasatch section represents all of early Eocene age.
DEPOSITIONAL ENVIRONMENT. The sediments that make up the Wasatch Formation in the Fossil Basin were deposited mainly by streams flowing into the basin from the surrounding uplands. Rock types are variable and for the most part individual types cannot be traced over large areas, a condition typical of fluvial environments. The mudstones and siltstones probably were deposited along flood plains, while the lenticular sands and conglomerates were laid down in stream channels. Where streams entered the lake tongues of deltaic deposits, sands or mudstones wedge into the Green River Lake sediments.
The reason for the red color of the Wasatch Formation is not fully known. According to Van Houten (1948), the red is most likely the result of tropical, red lateritic soils forming in the uplands and being deposited on flood plains. The oxidation of organic material in a humid, subtropical environment causes the red color. The bands of purple, gray, orange, and other colors are due to various stages in the reduction of the iron oxides in the rocks.
The presence of palms in the lake sediments and of bones of primates and crocodiles in both the lacustrine and fluvial sediments indicate a heavily forested, tropical environment.
The Green River Formation is easily recognized by its light color and continuous bedding, in strong contrast to the red, discontinuous, variegated Wasatch Formation below. The Green River Formation can be thought of as a gigantic lens of lacustrine sediments enclosed in the fluvial Wasatch Formation. The name Green River Formation is applied to all of the roughly contemporaneous deposits laid down in lakes of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. It is probable that at one time or another all of these lakes were connected.
Oriel and Tracey (1970) have divided the Green River Formation of the Fossil Basin into two members: the Fossil Butte Member and the Angelo Member.
FOSSIL BUTTE MEMBER. The type section for this member is near the southeastern end of Fossil Butte within the monument boundaries. In the type area the Fossil Butte Member can be seen to consist of four lithologic units.
The lowermost unit is predominantly mudstone. It occurs in a sequence about 45 ft thick and contains light gray, fine-grained, calcareous mudstone and siltstone.
The next overlying unit is about 75 ft thick and is mainly a limestone unit. It consists of tan to gray limestone, shaly limestone, siltstone, and paper shale which weathers into thin, curled flakes. A yellow-brown mudstone tops this unit.
The third unit in the sequence is 45 ft thick and mainly composed of shales. These shales weather a buff color and are calcareous. Oil shale, organic rich paper shale, and marlstone comprise the actual layers in the unit. A few, thin ash beds are also present. This unit is the most significant one for Fossil Butte National Monument. About 10 ft below the top of this unit (about 155 ft above the Wasatch) is a bed of varved shales, one foot thick, that contains the fossil fish for which the monument was established.
The uppermost unit contains a number of beds of oil shale that are brown on a fresh surface but weather a grayish-white. An orange-yellow-weathering limestone caps the 40-ft thick upper unit. Ash beds are common and traceable over a wide area of Fossil Basin.
South of the monument the Sandstone Tongue of the Wasatch Formation wedges in between the lowermost unit and the overlying limestone unit of the Fossil Butte Member.
In the Fossil Butte Member an interesting sequence of facies changes can be seen which reflect lateral changes in the environment of Fossil Lake. In those areas where the member represents a deep-water environment, organically formed limestones and shales are predominant. Shoreward, these rocks grade into ostracodal limestone, gastrapodal limestone, and, closest to shore, algal limestone. Then a muddy, sandy beach facies is encountered where the Green River and Wasatch formations intergrade.
The contact with the underlying Wasatch is conformable and sharp. It is often marked by a bench or by slump blocks of Green River Formation.
The Fossil Butte Member may in some cases overlap the Wasatch Formation and be deposited on Paleozoic and Mesozoic rocks. This is a reflection of topographic relief during the Eocene.
The thickness of the Fossil Butte Member, as reported by Oriel and Tracey (1970:37), is from 208 to 269 ft.
ANGELO MEMBER. In the northern part of Fossil Basin, the Mudstone Tongue of the Wasatch Formation separates the Angelo Member of the Green River Formation from the Fossil Butte Member. Further south, the two members rest directly on one another. The southern extent of the Angelo Member has not been determined as yet, but Oriel and Tracey (1970:32) believe it extends up to, and intertongues with, Wasatch conglomerates near the Uinta Mountains. Toward other edges of Fossil Basin, the Angelo Member thins and pinches out into the Wasatch Formation. The Bullpen Member of the Wasatch rests on top of the Angelo Member.
The Angelo Member consists of white to blue-white weathering limestone, marlstone, and mudstone. Some sandstone lenses, claystone, oil shale, and siliceous limestone are present as well. In general, Oriel and Tracey (1970) have found that buff limestones prevail to the north and white, siliceous limestone, to the south. Like the Fossil Butte Member, the Angelo Member shows a facies change from deep-water to shore.
This member forms the very uppermost, rounded slopes of Fossil Butte in contrast to the more vertical cliffs formed by the Fossil Butte Member.
AGE OF THE GREEN RIVER FORMATION. The age of the Green River Formation is dated on its intertonguing relationships with the Wasatch Formation because the latter has datable mammal fossils. The well preserved fossils of fish, leaves, and insects from the Green River are, unfortunately, of little value in dating the Green River Formation.
Although no Lostcabinian mammals are known from Fossil Basin, the Green River Formation is believed to be of that age (Gazin 1959; Schaeffer and Mangus 1965).
DEPOSITIONAL ENVIRONMENT. The Green River Formation, on the basis of its lithology and fossil content, is a fresh-water, lacustrine deposit. Clay and silt were dumped in Fossil Lake by streams. Most of this fine debris was deposited near the shore. Chemical and organic processes formed limestones and marlstones in the deeper central part of the lake.
Examination of the edge of the Green River Formation indicates that Fossil Lake expanded and contracted several times.
Fossil Lake was eventually filled in with chemical precipitates and deltaic deposits. The end of the lake was gradual as seen in the transitional and gradational Green River-Bullpen contact.
Although oil shale is not extensively developed in the Green River Formation of Fossil Basin, it does occur in small quantities.
Oil shale has a structureless ground mass that is yellowish-orange to reddish-orange in color. Pyrite crystals are found indicating a partially anaerobic or reducing environment. Pollen, waxy spores, filaments of algae, and other plant parts are preserved along with insects and larvae. The preservation is akin to mummification. Crystals of calcite, dolomite, or authigenic feldspar are also found in the oil shale (Bradley 1966).
The exact mode of origin of oil shale is not positively known because of a lack of a modern analogue for comparison. Oil shale probably originated as an organic ooze on the bottom of the Fossil Lake. This ooze was composed of the remains of phytoplanklon, blue-green algae, zooplanklon, bacteria, and some pollen and spores. The ooze was dense and uncompacted. Little clastic debris is found, either because the ooze accumulated in deep water or plants near the shore filtered out the debris.
Decay was reduced effectively in the ooze because of either an antibiotic in the ooze which inhibited bacteria of decay or the ooze accumulated in waters where anaerobic conditions prevented decay.
With lime and the weight of overlying sediments, the ooze was compacted and most of its water driven off. Continuing pressure from compaction and heat generated by burial and compaction caused a variety of complex chemical reactions which converted the ooze into a petroleum product called kerogen. Kerogen is distillable and is the important constituent of oil shale.
An alternate hypothesis (Eugster and Surdam 1973), would have some oil shale forming in a desert-playa environment. This is based on geochemical evidence found in Gosiute Lake sediments to the east of Fossil Lake. There, certain minerals are found in association with some oil shale that could only have been deposited during periods of extreme evaporation and in a shallow lake. Much study is now being directed toward a solution to these problems.
The combustible quality of oil shale has been known for a long time. Many of the pioneers used it as a fuel for cooking and heat. Hayden (1871:142) wrote of how workmen on the Union Pacific accidently ignited the oil shale in a cut they were excavating. The burning shale provided enough light for night work.
Many of the shales of the Green River Formation appear to be varved. A varve consists of two layers, one of calcium or magnesium carbonate and one of organic material. The limnological conditions that led to the formation of varves will be discussed in their proper place in the section on Paleoecology.
This is the middle formation of Veatch's (1907) tripartite division of the Wasatch Group. It is now found to be the youngest formation in Fossil Basin. It is not exposed in Fossil Butte National Monument.
Oriel and Tracey (1970) have formally divided and named three members of the Fowkes Formation: a lower Sillem Member, a middle Bulldog Hollow Member, and an upper Gooseberry Member.
SILLEM MEMBER. Like most of the Fowkes Formation, this sequence of rocks has been eroded extensively and is preserved as erosional remnants, where protected by faulting, in the western part of Fossil Basin.
The Sillem Member consists of a lower conglomeratic sequence with some sandstone and mudstone. The conglomerate contains well-rounded clasts of gray quartzite, chert, and Paleozoic limestone. The sandstone is light gray, calcareous to muddy, and coarse to medium grained. The mudstone is pink, gray, or tan in color.
The upper part of the Sillem Member is a mudstone and claystone unit. It ranges in color from pink and yellow to gray and green. Some volcanic debris is found. There are also interbedded layers of marlstone and limestone. Some sandstone is present.
The Sillem Member is between 100 and 400 ft thick and most probably rests unconformably on the Bullpen Member of the Wasatch.
BULLDOG HOLLOW MEMBER. This middle member of the Fowkes Formation has the thickest and most extensive outcrops. The Bulldog Hollow Member is exposed along the west side of the basin.
Included rocks are green, white, and blue-green mud stone with ash beds, green and buff claystone, and tuffaceous, limy sandstone. A high percentage of the iron mineral, magnetite, occurs in the sandstone. Conglomerate occurs as lenses.
The Bulldog Hollow Member has a gradational contact with the underlying Sillem Member. The amount of volcanic material increases upward from the Sillem, indicating an increase in volcanic activity during the deposition of the Bulldog Hollow Member.
GOOSEBERRY MEMBER. Oriel and Tracey (1970: 55) place this uppermost member provisionally within the Fowkes Formation. Most of the Gooseberry Member is a puddingstone, a lithology with well-rounded, spherical pebbles in a marlstone, sandstone, or sandy limestone matrix. The pebbles are too rounded for the rock to be a diamictite, and too separated from each other to be called a conglomerate.
The nature of the Gooseberry-Bulldog Hollow contact is not completely known. It appears to be gradational in some areas and to be an angular unconformity in others.
AGE OF FOWKES FORMATION. Fossils date the Sillem and Bulldog Hollow members as middle Eocene in age. These fossils consist of ostracodes, gastropods, leaves, and vertebrates from the Bulldog Hollow Member (Nelson 1973). The Gooseberry Member has yielded a few vertebrate remains and is late Miocene or early Pliocene in age (Oriel and Tracey 1970).
DEPOSITIONAL ENVIRONMENT. The Fowkes Formation is an alluvial deposit, much like the Wasatch Formation. The chemical and climatic conditions of deposition were different from those of the Wasatch, and the extensive red-beds are not developed.
Small lakes were present in which limestone and marlstone accumulated. The puddingstone may be a mudflow. Volcanic activity left its record in the ash found in the Fowkes Formation.
In the past, the Fowkes Formation had a greater distribution. Postdepositional faulting down dropped parts of the Fowkes protecting them from subsequent erosion.
Last Updated: 01-Mar-2005