THE PALEOZOIC ERATIME OF LONG-VANISHED SEAS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF LIFE
The Paleozoic sequence
North, west, and south of the highest Teton peaks the soaring spires and knife-edge ridges of Precambrian rock give way to rounded spurs and lower flat-topped summits, whose slopes are palisaded by continuous gray cliffs that resemble the battlements of some ancient and long-abandoned fortress (fig. 31). As mentioned previously, the cliffs are the projecting edges of layers of sedimentary rocks of Paleozoic age that accumulated in or along the margins of shallow seas. At one time the layers formed a thick unbroken, nearly horizontal blanket across the Precambrian basement rocks, but subsequent uplift of the eastern edge of the Teton fault block tilted them westward. They were then stripped from the highest peaks.
The Paleozoic and younger sedimentary rocks in the Teton region are subdivided into formations, each of which is named. A formation is composed of rock layers which, because of their similar physical characteristics, can be distinguished from overlying and underlying layers. They must be thick enough to be shown on a geologic map. Table 2 lists the various Paleozoic formations present in and adjacent to Grand Teton National Park and gives their thicknesses and characteristics. These sedimentary rocks are of special interest, for they not only record an important chapter of geologic history but elsewhere in the region they contain petroleum and other mineral deposits.
The Paleozoic rocks can be viewed close at hand from the top of the Teton Village tram (fig. 32) on the south boundary of the park. A less accessible but equally spectacular exposure of Paleozoic rocks is in Alaska Basin, along the west margin of the park, where they are stacked like even layers in a gigantic cake (fig. 33).
Alaska Basinsite of an outstanding rock and fossil record
Strata in Alaska Basin record with unusual clarity the opening chapters in the chronicle of seas that flowed and ebbed across the future site of the Teton Range during most of the Paleozoic Era. In the various rock layers are inscribed stories of the slow advance and retreat of ancient shorelines, of the storm waves breaking on long-vanished beaches, and of the slow and intricate evolution of the myriads of sea creatures that inhabited these restless waters.
Careful study of the fossils allows us to determine the age of each formation (table 3). Even more revealing, the fossils themselves are tangible evidence of the orderly parade of life that crossed the Teton landscape during more than 250 million years. Here is a record of Nature's experiments with life, the triumphs, failures, the bizarre, the beautiful.
The regularity and parallel relations of the layers in well-exposed sections such as the one in Alaska Basin suggest that all these rocks were deposited in a single uninterrupted sequence. However, the fossils and regional distribution of the rock units show that this is not really the case. The incomplete nature of this record becomes apparent if we plot the ages of the various formations on the absolute geologic time scale (fig. 34). The length of time from the beginning of the Cambrian Period to the end of the Mississippian Period is about 285 million years. The strata in Alaska Basin are a record of approximately 120 million years. More than half of the pages in the geologic story are missing even though, compared with most other areas, the book as a whole is remarkably complete! During these unrecorded intervals of time either no sediments were deposited in the area of the Teton Range or, if deposited, they were removed by erosion.
Advance and retreat of Cambrian seas: an example
The first invasion and retreat of the Paleozoic sea are sketched on figure 35. Early in Cambrian time a shallow seaway, called the Cordilleran trough, extended from southern California northeastward across Nevada into Utah and Idaho (fig. 35A). The vast gently rolling plain on Precambrian rocks to the east was drained by sluggish westward-flowing rivers that carried sand and mud into the sea. Slow subsidence of the land caused the sea to spread gradually eastward. Sand accumulated along the beaches just as it does today. As the sea moved still farther east, mud was deposited on the now-submerged beach sand. In the Teton area, the oldest sand deposit is called the Flathead Sandstone (fig. 36).
The mud laid down on top of the Flathead Sandstone as the shoreline advanced eastward across the Teton area is now called the Wolsey Shale Member of the Gros Ventre Formation. Some shale shows patterns of cracks that formed when the accumulating mud was briefly exposed to the air along tidal flats. Small phosphatic-shelled animals called brachiopods inhabited these lonely tidal flats (fig. 37A and B) but as far as is known, nothing lived on land. Many shale beds are marked with faint trails and borings of wormlike creatures, and a few contain the remains of tiny very intricately developed creatures with head, eyes, segmented body, and tail. These are known as trilobites (fig. 37C and D). Descendants of these lived in various seas that crossed the site of the dormant Teton Range for the next 250 million years.
As the shoreline moved eastward, the Death Canyon Limestone Member of the Gros Ventre Formation (fig. 33) was deposited in clear water farther from shore. Following this the sea retreated to the west for a short time. In the shallow muddy water resulting from this retreat the Park Shale Member of the Gros Ventre Formation was deposited. In places underwater "meadows" of algae flourished on the sea bottom and built extensive reefs (fig. 38A). From time to time shoal areas were hit by violent storm waves that tore loose platy fragments of recently solidified limestone and swept them into nearby channels where they were buried and cemented into thin beds of jumbled fragments (fig. 38B) called "edgewise" conglomerate. These are wide spread in the shale and in overlying and underlying limestones.
Table 3. Formations exposed in Alaska Basin.
Once again the shoreline crept eastward, the seas cleared, and the Gallatin Limestone was deposited. The Gallatin, like the Death Canyon Limestone Member, was laid down for the most part in quiet, clear water, probably at depths of 100 to 200 feet. However, a few beds of "edgewise" conglomerate indicate the occurrence of sporadic storms. At this time, the sea covered all of Idaho and Montana and most of Wyoming (fig. 35B) and extended eastward across the Dakotas to connect with shallow seas that covered the eastern United States. Soon after this maximum stage was reached slow uplift caused the sea to retreat gradually westward. The site of the Teton Range emerged above the waves, where, as far as is now known, it may have been exposed to erosion for nearly 70 million years (fig. 35C).
The above historical summary of geologic events in Cambrian time is recorded in the Cambrian formations. This is an example of the reconstructions, based on the sedimentary rock record, that have been made of the Paleozoic systems in this area.
Younger Paleozoic formations
Formations of the remaining Paleozoic systems are likewise of interest because of the ways in which they differ from those already described.
The Bighorn Dolomite of Ordovician age forms ragged hard massive light-gray to white cliffs 100 to 200 feet high (figs. 32 and 33). Dolomite is a calcium-magnesium carbonate, but the original sediment probably was a calcium carbonate mud that was altered by magnesium-rich sea water shortly after deposition. Corals and other marine animals were abundant in the clear warm seas at this time.
Dolomite in the Darby Formation of Devonian age differs greatly from the Bighorn Dolomite; that in the Darby is dark-brown to almost black, has an oily smell, and contains layers of black, pink, and yellow mudstone and thin sandstone. The sea bottom during deposition of these rocks was foul and frequently the water was turbid. Abundant fossil fragments indicate fishes were common for the first time. Exposures of the Darby Formation are recognizable by their distinctive dull-yellow thin-layered slopes between the prominent gray massive cliffs of formations below and above.
The Madison Limestone of Mississippian age is 1,000 feet thick and is exposed in spectacular vertical cliffs along canyons in the north, west, and south parts of the Tetons. It is noted for the abundant remains of beautifully preserved marine organisms (fig. 39). The fossils and the relatively pure blue-gray limestone in which they are embedded indicate deposition in warm tranquil seas. The beautiful Ice Cave on the west side of the Tetons and all other major caves in the region were dissolved out of this rock by underground water.
The Pennsylvanian System is represented by the Amsden Formation and the Tensleep Sandstone. Cliffs of the Tensleep Sandstone can be seen along the Gros Ventre River at the east edge of the park. The Amsden, below the Tensleep, consists of red and green shale, sandstone, and thin limestone. The shale is especially weak and slippery when exposed to weathering and saturated with water. These are the strata that make up the glide plane of the Lower Gros Ventre Slide (fig. 5) east of the park.
The Phosphoria Formation and its equivalents of Permian age are unlike any other Paleozoic rocks because of their extraordinary content of uncommon elements. The formation consists of sandy dolomite, widespread black phosphate beds and black shale that is unusually rich not only in phosphorus, but also in vanadium, uranium, chromium, zinc, selenium, molybdenum, cobalt, and silver. The formation is mined extensively in nearby parts of Idaho and in Wyoming for phosphatic fertilizer, for the chemical element phosphorus, and for some of the metals that can be derived from the rocks as byproducts. These elements and compounds are not everywhere concentrated enough to be of economic interest, but their dollar-value is, in a regional sense, comparaible to that of some of the world's greatest mineral deposits.
Last Updated: 19-Jan-2007