The initiation of pluton formation is rarely preserved as the rock record is typically overprinted by younger intruding pulses. An exception is the 80 km2 Kuna Crest lobe, which marks the initiation of the 95−85 Ma, 1100 km2 Tuolumne Intrusive Complex in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA. We present a detailed map of the lithologies and structure of the Kuna Crest lobe, associated sheeted complex and satellite plutons, and their host rocks, using chemical abrasion−isotope dilution−thermal ionization mass spectrometry and laser ablation−inductively coupled plasma−mass spectrometry U-Pb zircon geochronology, element and isotope geochemistry, and Al-in-hornblende thermobarometry to conclude the following: (a) The 94.91 ± 0.53 Ma to 92.75 ± 0.11 Ma Kuna Crest lobe and its marginal sheeted complex preserved the oldest intrusive pulses and most mantle-like compositions of the entire Tuolumne Intrusive Complex. (b) Emplacement began with magma wedging of low volume magma pulses resulting in a sheeted complex that is compositionally heterogeneous at outcrop scales, but isotopically homogeneous. (c) These early magmas established a pre-heated pathway within just a few hundreds of thousands of years that gave way to the formation of the ∼1.5 million-year-long active, compositionally more homogeneous but isotopically more heterogeneous magma mush across the Kuna Crest lobe. The host rocks and previously intruded magma were displaced largely vertically through downward flow. (d) The melt-interconnected mush zone in the lobe allowed for magma mixing and crystal-liquid separation at the emplacement level. We interpret this lobe to represent an upper- to mid-crustal, vertical magma transfer zone that likely fed shallower plutons and potentially volcanic eruptions. We propose a filter pressing mechanism driven by vertical magma transport through the lobe resulting in margin-parallel fabrics, plagioclase-rich crystal cumulates, inward draining and upward loss (of up to 40%) of interstitial melts. Some inward drained melts hybridized with later intruding Half Dome magmas at the transition to the main Tuolumne Intrusive Complex. Some of the lobe magmas, including fractionated melts, drained laterally into the strain shadow of the lobe to form the satellite plutons, further contributing to cumulate formation in the lobe.

This study documents that within only a few hundreds of thousands of years, arc magma plumbing systems are capable of establishing a focused magma pathway to build up to increasingly larger magma bodies that are capable of undergoing magma differentiation and feeding shallower plutons and volcanic eruptions.

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