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We investigate the structural, petrological and compositional features recorded by strongly deformed and melt-percolated Erro–Tobbio peridotites (Voltri Massif, Ligurian Alps, NW Italy), in order to demonstrate that the processes of shear-zone formation and melt percolation are intimately linked by a positive feedback. We focus on spinel and plagioclase peridotites, and extensional shear zones that underwent infiltration by upwelling asthenospheric melts. Shear and porosity bands, which developed during extension prior to melt infiltration, represent important structural and rheological pathways to facilitate and enhance melt infiltration into the extending lithosphere and the ascent of such melts to shallower levels.

Our results lend strong support to numerical models addressing the physical processes underlying extensional systems. These show that, in the case of slow–ultraslow continental extension and the subsequent formation of slow–ultraslow spreading oceans, porosity and shear-localization bands may develop in a previously unstructured lithosphere, prior to melt infiltration. Our studies on the Erro–Tobbio peridotites allow a model for the inception of continental extension and rifting to drifting of slow–ultraslow spreading oceans to be proposed. We suggest that integrated studies of on-land peridotites, coupled with geophysical–structural results from modern oceans, may provide clues to the geodynamic processes governing continental extension and passive rifting.

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