Abstract

The ever-changing distribution of continents and ocean basins on Earth is fundamental to the environment of the planet. Recent ideas regarding pre-Pangea geography and tectonics offer fresh opportunities to examine possible causative relations between tectonics and environmental and biologic changes during the Neoproterozoic and Paleozoic eras. The starting point is an appreciation that Laurentia, the rift-bounded Precambrian core of North America, could have been juxtaposed with the cratonic cores of some present-day southern continents. This has led to reconstructions of Rodinia and Pannotia, supercontinents that may have existed in early and latest Neoproterozoic time, respectively, before and after the opening of the Pacific Ocean basin.

Recognition that the Precordillera of northwest Argentina constitutes a terrane derived from Laurentia may provide critical longitudinal control on the relations of that craton to Gondwana during the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary transition, and in the early Paleozoic. The Precordillera was most likely derived from the general area of the Ouachita embayment, and may have been part of a hypothetical promontory of Laurentia, the “Texas plateau,” which was detached from the Cape of Good Hope embayment within Gondwana between the present-day Falkland-Malvinas Plateau and Transantarctic Mountains margins. Thus the American continents may represent geometric “twins” detached from the Pannotian and Pangean supercontinents in Early Cambrian and Early Cretaceous time, respectively—the new mid-ocean ridge crests of those times initiating the two environmental supercycles of Phanerozoic history 400 m.y. apart. In this scenario, the extremity of the Texas plateau was detached from Laurentia during the Caradocian Epoch, in a rift event ca. 455 Ma that followed Middle Ordovician collision with the proto-Andean margin of Gondwana as part of the complex Indonesian-style Taconic-Famatinian orogeny, which involved several island arc-continent collisions between the two major continental entities. Laurentia then continued its clockwise relative motion around the proto-Andean margin, colliding with other arc terranes, Avalonia, and Baltica en route to the Ouachita-Alleghanian-Hercynian-Uralian collision that completed the amalgamation of Pangea.

The important change in single-celled organisms at the Mesoproterozoic-Neoproterozoic boundary (1000 Ma) accompanied assembly of Rodinia along Grenvillian sutures. Possible divergence of metazoan phyla, the appearance and disappearance of the Ediacaran fauna (ca. 650–545 Ma), and the Cambrian “explosion” of skeletalized metazoans (ca. 545–500 Ma) also appear to have taken place within the framework of tectonic change of truly global proportions. These are the opening of the Pacific Ocean basin; uplift and erosion of orogens within the newly assembled Gondwana portion of Pannotia, including a collisional mountain range extending ≈7500 km from Arabia to the Pacific margin of Antarctica; the development of a Pannotia-splitting oceanic spreading ridge system nearly 10 000 km long as Laurentia broke away from Gondwana, Baltica, and Siberia; and initiation of subduction zones along thousands of kilometres of the South American and Antarctic-Australian continental margins. The Middle Ordovician sea-level changes and biologic radiation broadly coincided with initiation of the Appalachian-Andean mountain system along >7000 km of the Taconic and Famatinian belts. These correlations, based on testable paleogeographic reconstructions, invite further speculation about possible causative relations between the internally driven long-term tectonic evolution of the planet, its surface environment, and life.

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