The end-Cretaceous mass extinction (66 Ma) has long been associated with the Chicxulub impact on the Yucatan Peninsula. However, consensus on the age of this impact has remained controversial because of differing interpretations on the stratigraphic position of Chicxulub impact spherules relative to the mass extinction horizon. One side argues that the impact occurred precisely at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, thus coinciding with the mass extinction; the other side argues that the impact predated the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, based on the discovery of primary impact spherules deposits in NE Mexico and Texas near the base of planktic foraminiferal zone CF1, dated at 170 k.y. before the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. A recent study of the most pristine Chicxulub impact spherules discovered on Gorgonilla Island, Colombia, suggested that they represent a primary impact deposit with an absolute age indistinguishable from the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. Here, we report on the Gorgonilla section with the main objective of evaluating the nature of deposition and age of the spherule-rich layer relative to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary.
The Gorgonilla section consists of light gray-yellow calcareous siliceous mudstones (pelagic deposits) alternating with dark olive-brown litharenites (turbidites). A 3-cm-thick dark olive-green spherule-rich layer overlies an erosional surface separating Maastrichtian and Danian sediments. This layer consists of a clast-supported, normally graded litharenite, with abundant Chicxulub impact glass spherules, lithics (mostly volcanic), and Maastrichtian as well as Danian microfossils, which transitions to a calcareous mudstone as particle size decreases. Mineralogical analysis shows that this layer is dominated by phyllosilicates, similar to the litharenites (turbidites) that characterize the section. Based on these results, the spherule-rich layer is interpreted as a reworked early Danian deposit associated with turbiditic currents. A major hiatus (>250 k.y.) spanning the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary and the earliest Danian is recorded at the base of the spherule-rich layer, based on planktic foraminiferal and radiolarian biostratigraphy and carbon stable isotopes. Erosion across the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary has been recorded worldwide and is generally attributed to rapid climate changes, enhanced bottom-water circulation during global cooling, sea-level fluctuations, and/or intensified tectonic activity. Chicxulub impact spherules are commonly reworked and redeposited into younger sediments overlying a Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary hiatus of variable extent in the Caribbean, Central America, and North Atlantic, while primary deposits are rare and only known from NE Mexico and Texas. Because of their reworked nature, Gorgonilla spherules provide no stratigraphic evidence from which the timing of the impact can be inferred.