Understanding the environmental features and processes responsible for the formation of organic-rich, laterally extensive source rocks of appreciable thickness, such as the Late Devonian–Early Mississippian Woodford Shale, is necessary to refine current depositional models. In this study, a detailed assessment of the paleowater column was undertaken via examination of molecular fossil (biomarker) data. Specifically, C40 aromatic carotenoids were used to delineate the nature and severity of photic-zone euxinia concomitant with the deposition of the lower, middle, and upper Woodford. The immature character of the Woodford in the study area ensured that biomarker interpretations were reflective of the depositional environment and not altered by secondary processes.

Twenty-nine Woodford Shale samples from the Lawrence uplift of the western Arkoma Basin were subjected to bulk and molecular geochemical analyses, with the objective to enhance the understanding of the paleowater column. A suite of C40 aromatic carotenoids—paleorenieratane, isorenieratane, renieratane, and renierapurpurane—was identified for the first time in the Woodford Shale. Paleorenieratane, the predominant C40 aromatic carotenoid, was found to be isotopically enriched (δ13C = −12‰ ± 1.5‰). This was interpreted as a product of carbon fixation via the reverse tricarboxylic acid cycle, a diagnostic trait of Chlorobiaceae. Additional biomarker parameters sensitive to changes in redox assisted in substantiating interpretations of Chlorobiaceae derivatives, with the severity of photic-zone euxinia inferred by the effects that this environmental state imposed on the overlying microbial community and algal populations. Previously unrecognized inter- and intramember variations in water-column structure and redox state were documented.

The lower Woodford was characterized by isolated pulses of photic-zone euxinia, with the middle Woodford deposited during persistent photic-zone euxinia, as evinced by elevated concentrations of the C40 aromatic carotenoids. A deep, persistent chemocline likely typified upper Woodford deposition, but lack of sampling intensity in this member may belie a more episodic nature. Effects of photic-zone euxinia appeared to be most severe in the middle Woodford, where progressively increasing C40 aromatic-carotenoid concentrations coincide with rising gammacerane indices and a systematic decrease in sterane/hopane values. Environmental conditions (e.g., oxygen minimum zone, restriction) that facilitate the development of euxinia in the photic zone were interpreted to reconstruct the paleoenvironment on a local to subregional scale.

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