A proposed salt tectonism-saline seep model provides a novel alternative to the two widely accepted but irreconcilable depositional models for middle McMurray Formation strata of the Lower Cretaceous Athabasca Oil Sands deposit. Established interpretations of a fluvial axial channel belt along the eastern Alberta Foreland Basin contrast with a hundreds-of-kilometres long estuarine marine–fluvial transition zone setting that was characterized by brackish-water trace fossil laden beds. The architecture of a highly sinuous fluvial meander channel belt with bank-full depths of 30–40 m furthermore is not compatible with an estuary having a tens-of-metres thick salt wedge extending hundreds-of-kilometres upstream. This new model proposes that the removal of the underlying 100 m thick Middle Devonian salt section occurred across thousands of square kilometres and resulted in voluminous saline seeps up-section into river channel fills of the middle McMurray Formation. Southward transgression by a Boreal Sea tongue terminated fluvial lower McMurray Formation deposition, and transported brackish-water larvae inland along the tide-impacted backwater length. This zoology was sustained along the fluvial channel belt by the saline seeps that elevated salinity levels in channel muds as the fluvial system dominance reasserted. Brackish-water macroinvertebrates rapidly adapted to new terrestrial food sources in these fluvial channels, precluding the necessity for a salt wedge to have extended inland for hundreds of kilometres. This research presents the first quantitative analysis of the McMurray Formation trace fossil distribution patterns. Quaternary saline surface seep trends are proposed to represent intermittent seepage up-section since the Early Cretaceous.

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