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Two different types of ‘transitional lithosphere’ have been documented along magma-poor rifted margins. One consists of apparently subcontinental mantle that has been exhumed, brittlely deformed, and serpentinized during late stages of rifting. A second is thinned (<10 km) continental crust, which in some cases is known to have been supported near sea level at least early in the rift history and thus is interpreted to reflect depth-dependent extension. In both cases, it is typically assumed that oceanic crust forms at the time that the brittle continental crust is breached or soon thereafter, and thus that transitional lithosphere has relatively limited width. Here three representative cases of transitional lithosphere are examined: one in the Newfoundland–Iberia rift and one at Goban Spur (both exhumed mantle), and one off the Angola–Congo margin (thin continental crust flanked seaward by apparently exhumed lower continental crust±exhumed mantle). Considering the geological and geophysical evidence, it appears that depth-dependent extension (riftward flow of weak lower continental crust and/or upper mantle) may be a common phenomenon on magma-poor margins and that this can result in a much broader zone of transitional lithosphere than has hitherto been assumed. Transitional lithosphere in this wide zone may consist of subcontinental mantle, lower continental crust or some combination thereof, depending on the strength profile of the pre-rift continental lithosphere. Transitional lithosphere ceases to be emplaced (i.e. ‘final break-up’ occurs) only when emplacement of heat and melt from the rising asthenosphere becomes dominant over lateral flow of the weak lower lithosphere. This model implies a two-stage break-up: first, the rupture of the brittle continental crust; and, second, the eventual separation of the ductile subcontinental lithosphere which is coincident with emplacement of normal oceanic crust. Well defined magnetic anomalies can form in transitional lithosphere that consists of highly serpentinized, exhumed mantle, and such anomalies therefore are not diagnostic of oceanic crust. Where present, the anomalies can be helpful in interpreting and dating the rifting history.

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