The source of reworked Devonian algal “cysts” in last glacial maximum (LGM) sediment in the Gulf of Mexico is traced to their host black shales, which ring the southwestern Great Lakes. The source-to-sink pathway includes intermediate storage in fine-grained LGM glacial lacustrine sediment and till. The “cysts” are pelagic chlorophyllous algae (Tasmanites and Leiosphaeridia), collectively referred to herein as tasmanitids. Radiocarbon dates of syndepositional Gulf of Mexico foraminifera, derived from accelerator mass spectrometry, bracket the Gulf of Mexico sediment age with common tasmanitids from 28.5 ± 0.6–17.8 ± 0.2 cal kyr B.P.

Approximately 1400 km north of the Gulf of Mexico, tasmanitids are abundant in Upper Devonian black shales (New Albany, Antrim, and Ohio Shales) that ring the Michigan, Illinois, and Appalachian intracratonic basins. Tasmanitids were eroded from bedrock and incorporated in glacial sediment dating from ca. 28.0–17.6 cal kyr B.P. by the Lake Michigan, and Huron-Erie lobes of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. The physical characteristics of tasmanitids are ideal for long-distance transport as suspended sediment (density: 1.1–1.3 g/cc, size ranging from 63 µm to 300 µm), and these sand-sized tasmanitids traveled with the silt-clay fraction. Thus, the source-to-sink journey of tasmanitids was initiated by subglacial erosion by water or friction, sequestering in till or glaciolacustrine sediment, re-entrainment and suspension in meltwater, and final delivery in meltwater plumes to the Gulf of Mexico. River routes included the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio, Wabash, Kaskaskia, and many of their tributaries.

Reworked Devonian tasmanitids are a previously unrecognized link between their occurrence in deep-water deposits of the Gulf of Mexico and the late Wisconsin glacial history of the Upper Mississippi Valley. We propose that tracking occurrences of tasmanitid concentrations from the source area to sink, along with adjunct proxies such as clay minerals, will facilitate a more refined analysis of the timing and duration of megafloods. This study also demonstrates that isotopically dead carbon, from reworked Devonian tasmanitid “cysts,” can contaminate radiocarbon dating of LGM bulk sediment samples toward older ages.

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