Microfossil bonebeds are multi-individual accumulations of disarticulated and dissociated vertebrate hardparts dominated by elements in the millimeter to centimeter size range (≥75% of bioclasts ≤5 cm maximum dimension). Modes of accumulation are often difficult to decipher from reports in the literature, although predatory (scatological) and fluvial/hydraulic origins are typically proposed. We studied the sedimentology and taphonomy of 27 microfossil bonebeds in the Campanian Judith River Formation of Montana in order to reconstruct formative histories. Sixteen of the bonebeds examined are hosted by fine-grained facies that accumulated in low-energy aquatic settings (pond/lake microfossil bonebeds). Eleven of the bonebeds are embedded in sandstones that accumulated in ancient fluvial settings (channel-hosted microfossil bonebeds). In lieu of invoking separate pathways to accumulation based on facies distinctions, we present a model that links the accumulation of bioclasts in the two facies. We propose that vertebrate material initially accumulates to fossiliferous levels in ponds/lakes and is later reworked and redeposited as channel-hosted assemblages. This interpretation is grounded in reasonable expectations of lacustrine and fluvial depositional systems and supported by taphonomic data. Moreover, it is consistent with faunal data that indicate that channel-hosted assemblages and pond/lake assemblages are similar with regard to presence/absence and rank-order abundance of taxa.
This revised model of bonebed formation has significant implications for studies of vertebrate paleoecology that hinge on analyses of faunal data recovered from vertebrate microfossil assemblages. Pond/lake microfossil bonebeds in the Judith River record are preserved in situ at the scale of the local paleoenvironment, with no indication of postmortem transport into or out of the life habitat. Moreover, they are time-averaged samples of their source communities, which increases the likelihood of capturing both ecologically abundant species and more rare or transient members of the paleocommunity. These attributes make pond/lake microfossil bonebeds excellent targets for paleoecological studies that seek to reconstruct overall community membership and structure. In contrast, channel-hosted microfossil bonebeds in the Judith River record are out of place from a paleoenvironmental perspective because they are reworked from preexisting pond/lake assemblages and redeposited in younger channel facies. However, despite a history of exhumation and redeposition, channel-hosted microfossil bonebeds are preserved in relatively close spatial proximity to original source beds. This taphonomic reconstruction is counter to the commonly held view that microfossil bonebeds are biased samples that have experienced long-distance transport and significant hydrodynamic sorting.