Abstract

The fossilization of organic remains and shell material by calcium phosphate minerals provides an illuminating, but time-bounded, window into Ediacaran–Cambrian animal evolution. For reasons that remain unknown, phosphatic fossil preservation declined significantly through Cambrian Series 2. Here, we investigate the phosphorus (P) sources for phosphatic Cambrian carbonates, presenting sedimentological, petrographic, and geochemical data from the Cambrian Series 2–3 Thorntonia Limestone, Australia, some of the youngest Cambrian strata to display exceptional phosphatic preservation of small shelly fossils. We find that within Thorntonia sediments, phosphate was remobilized by organic decay and bacterial iron reduction, with subsequent reprecipitation largely as apatite within the interiors of small shelly fossils. We discuss the merits of bioclastic-derived, organic matter–bound, or iron-bound P as potential sources to these strata. Petrographic observations suggest that the dissolution of phosphatic skeletal material did not provide the P for fossil preservation. In contrast, high organic carbon contents imply significant organic fluxes of P to Thorntonia sediments. Sedimentology and iron-speciation data indicate that phosphorus enrichment occurred during times of expanded anoxic, ferruginous conditions in subsurface water masses, suggesting that phosphorus adsorption to iron minerals precipitating from the water column provided a second significant P source to Thorntonia sediments. Simple stoichiometric models suggest that, by themselves, neither organic carbon burial nor an iron shuttle can account for the observed phosphorus enrichment. Thus, we infer that both processes were necessary for the observed phosphorus enrichment and subsequent fossil preservation in the Thorntonia Limestone.

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