Lower Cretaceous deposit reveals first evidence of a post-wildfire debris flow in the Kirkwood Formation, Algoa Basin, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Muir et al
The Algoa Basin is an onshore rift basin filled by an Upper Mesozoic non-marine and shallow marine sedimentary sequence. The middle unit of this clastic succession is assigned to the Lower Cretaceous Kirkwood Formation, known to host a wealth of plant and animal fossils together with poorly documented lignites, amber and charcoal clasts. This study is motivated by the growing interest in the impact of wildfires on the palaeoenvironment during the high-oxygen, Cretaceous world. It has been hypothesised that frequent and severe Cretaceous wildfires triggered large-scale non-marine denudation events, altering the sedimentation dynamics and influencing the evolution of ecosystems. In order to investigate this phenomenon, charcoal-bearing sedimentary rocks and plant fossil assemblages of the Kirkwood Formation have been studied at the Bezuidenhouts River locality, ∼50 km north of Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape, South Africa).
Detailed field observations of the sedimentary facies suggest that deposition occurred in a meandering fluvial environment with mature, vegetated floodplains. Depositional trends within a charcoal-rich bed (i.e., stratification, flattening and decrease in charcoal clast size down-current) indicate that a charcoal-rich debris flow, linked to a post-wildfire flood event, became diluted by fluvial flow. Palaeocurrent indicators (e.g., orientation of fossil logs) suggest unidirectional currents from SW to NE, which are somewhat inconsistent with the previously reported regional palaeocurrent directions in the Kirkwood Formation.
To gain insights into the fire-influenced dynamics of the Early Cretaceous ecosystems, the macro-plant fossil assemblages of the Kirkwood Formation were considered, with reference to the responses of modern plant analogues to wildfire. Of the plant orders reported from macrofossils of the Kirkwood Formation, the Cycadales, Pinales and Filicales, are known to have produced large woody or fibrous trunks and stems, or in the case of the Bennettitales more densely branched, divaricate architectures, and are likely to have provided the bulk of fuel for wildfires, with fern elements dominating groundcover niches. The particular role of these plants in the Early Cretaceous wildfire palaeoecology of the Algoa Basin is a topic for an ongoing study, but the Bezuidenhouts River locality appears to record the aftermath of a severe crownfire that led to mass tree mortality.