Abstract

A plate-tectonic model for the evolution of Middle America and the Gulf of Mexico-Caribbean Sea region is presented. The model, which is based upon the existence of the Mojave-Sonora megashear, incorporates into the Triassic Pangea reconstruction three microplates between North and South America, thus avoiding the overlap of the Bullard fit. These plates are the Yaqui, bounded on the north by the Mojave-Sonora megashear; the east and west Maya plates, bounded on the north by the Mexican volcanic zone and on the south by a predecessor of the Motagua fault zone; and the Chortis plate (parts of Guatemala and Honduras). During Late Jurassic time, as North America split away from Europe, Africa, and South America, shear, with left-lateral sense of displacement, occurred along the transform faults that bounded the micro-plates.

If ∼800 km of left-lateral displacement along the Mojave-Sonora megashear, ∼300 km along the Mexican volcanic belt, and ∼1,300 km along a proto-Motagua megashear are restored, and if Yucatan and Cuba are rotated to fit against northern South America, then (1) a curvilinear belt of late Paleozoic rocks that show lithologic as well as paleontologic similarities extends across the reconstruction and links outcrops in Texas, eastern Mexico, nuclear Central America, and Colombia; (2) a Mediterranean-like sea is delineated that was a precursor of most of the present Gulf of Mexico; (3) correlation is implied between the distinctive quartzose San Cayetano Formation of Cuba and the Caracas and Juan Griego Groups of Venezuela.

Geometric constraints suggest that probably shear initially occurred along the Mexican volcanic zone near the end of the Middle Jurassic. Subsequently, probably about 160 m.y. ago, displacements that total ∼800 km began along the Mojave-Sonora megashear. Contemporaneously, Yucatan and fragments of pre-Cretaceous rocks that compose parts of central and western Cuba migrated northward toward their present positions. Rotation of Yucatan was facilitated by considerable displacement along the proto-Motagua zone and along a zone that is probably coincident with the modern Salina Cruz fault. Accumulation of widespread major salt units of Late Jurassic (Callovian to early Oxfordian) age in the Gulf Basin probably occurred contemporaneously with the arrival of these blocks at their present positions. Clastic units that interfinger with some of the youngest salt units and rim the Gulf of Mexico have not recorded major recognized translations since their accumulation.

Clockwise rotation of South America and the Chortis plate occurred during Early Cretaceous time. This movement, which was manifested by subduction of Jurassic ocean floor against the previously rifted precursor of the island of Cuba and under parts of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, is recorded by circum-Caribbean orogeny.

Abrupt changes in the relative motions between North and South America during Late Cretaceous time may have resulted in extension and outpourings of basalt upon the Jurassic rocks of the ocean floor of the Venezuelan Basin. West of Beata Ridge, sea-floor spreading formed the Colombian Basin. Related subduction occurred as the Chortis plate (including part of Central America, the Nicaraguan Rise, and southeastern Cuba) was sutured against the Maya East plate along the present Motagua fault and Cayman Trench.

Our model is constrained by published geologic data, the relative positions of North and South America from Atlantic sea-floor magnetic anomalies, and the requirement that the major transform faults be compatible with the poles of rotation for the appropriate relative motions between North and South America. Paleomagnetic data from Middle America are sparse but do not conflict with the predicted motions of some of the microplates, especially Chortis.

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