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Biogenic apatite crystals in living organisms contain relatively high concentrations of carbonate, sodium, and other species, making the crystallite relatively soluble and reactive. During fossilization, apatite composition changes from a metastable carbonate hydroxylapatite to a thermodynamically more stable fluorapatite. Calcium, sodium, carbonate, and hydroxyl are replaced by fluoride, REE, and trace elements during diagenesis. The total REE concentrations in osteological material are generally <20 ppm; in fossil bones, however, the concentrations may be >1000–10,000 ppm. More than 95% of REE in fossil bone is incorporated during diagenesis. The fossilization process occurs within a few thousand years, and thus the chemical composition of the fossils records the composition of early diagenetic fluids. Apatite becomes a “flight recorder” for the environment of early diagenesis and can be used to interpret the condition of the paleoenvironment.

REE were analyzed from marine reptile (Mosasauridae) bones collected from five superposed formations (Sharon Springs, Gregory, Crow Creek, DeGrey, and Verendrye) of the Upper Cretaceous Pierre Shale Group at localities along the Missouri River in central South Dakota. Fossil vertebrates from each lithostratigraphic unit sampled of the Pierre Shale Group have different REE signatures. Fossils from the Sharon Springs Formation have distinctive REE signatures that may be further subdivided into three superposed members that correspond with the upper, middle, and lower Sharon Springs Formation. REE signatures are distinctive from each stratigraphic unit; therefore, fossils eroded from their stratigraphic context may be assigned to their proper depositional unit on the basis of REE signature comparisons.

Differences in REE compositions of fossil bones among lithostratigraphic subdivisions appear to have resulted from differential mixing of oxygenated and anoxic seawaters. If differences in mixing are interpreted as depth differences, the lower Sharon Springs member was deposited in deep, anoxic water; water depths decreased for the middle and upper Sharon Springs, and the overlying Gregory and Crow Creek units were deposited in even more shallow water. Finally, the overlying DeGrey and Verendrye Formations were deposited in progressively deeper marine waters, but not as deep as for the lower Sharon Springs. These interpretations are generally consistent with those based on faunal diversity and eustatic sea level curves.

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