High gold contents (to 10.1 ppm, avg 1.4 ppm, n = 34) occur in pyrrhotite-rich massive sulfide samples from the sediment-covered floor of the Escanaba trough, the slow-spreading, southernmost segment of Gorda Ridge. These concentrations reflect the presence of primary gold, formed during high-temperature hydrothermal activity in mounds and chimneys, and secondary gold deposited during sea-floor weathering of massive sulfide. Primary gold occurs as fine-grained (<2 μm) gold, electrum, maldonite (Au2Bi), and a rare unnamed mineral (AuBi5S4) and is texturally and temporally associated with sulfarsenides (arsenopyrite, glaucodot, alloclastite, and cobaltite), arsenides (löllingite and safflorite), Bi minerals (native bismuth, Bi tellurides, Bi-Te sulfides, and bismuthinite), and galena. Larger (>2 μm) secondary gold grains have a porous, flaky morphology and occur in samples in which pyrrhotite is oxidized and replaced by Fe oxyhydroxides, Fe sulfate, and sulfur.
Mounds and chimneys dominated by pyrrhotite and containing lesser amounts of isocubanite, chalcopyrite, and Fe-rich sphalerite were formed by high-temperature (estimated range 325°–275°C), reduced, low-sulfur vent fluids. The mineral and fluid compositions during this main stage of hydrothermal venting reflect subsurface interaction between circulating hydrothermal fluids and turbiditic sediment containing as much as 1.1 percent organic carbon. As the deposition of pyrrhotite, Cu-Fe sulfides, and sphalerite waned, a volumetrically minor suite of sulfarsenide, arsenide, Bi, and Au minerals was deposited from highly reduced, late main-stage fluids diffusing through mounds and chimneys. The low solubility of Au as a bisulfide complex and the absence of fluid mixing during this stage of hydrothermal activity apparently inhibited the precipitation of gold directly from solution. Instead, gold precipitation is thought to be linked to elevated concentrations of Bi in the late main-stage fluids. The textural relationships of Au and Bi minerals in pyrrhotite-rich samples, low melting point of native bismuth (271.4°C), and recent experimental results on Au and Bi in hydrothermal fluids contribute to the hypothesis that gold was effectively scavenged from the Escanaba trough vent fluids by coexisting droplets of liquid bismuth. Additional phase relationships of alloys in the Au-Bi system indicate that deposition of native bismuth and maldonite occurred at temperatures as low as 241°C. Bismuth droplets trapped in void space between main-stage mineral grains scavenged gold from ambient hydrothermal fluid to a greater extent than bismuth enclosed by late-forming pyrrhotite. The limited solid solution of Au in Bi can explain the apparent exsolution texture in which gold blebs are hosted by native bismuth. The electrum, native bismuth (with gold inclusions), and galena represent the last traces of gold mineralization from late main-stage fluids.
During sea-floor weathering and the oxidation of pyrrhotite in the mounds and chimneys, secondary gold formed as aggregates of colloidal particles along pH gradients between acidic pore waters and ambient seawater. Gold was mobilized from earlier formed primary gold minerals and transported as aqueous chloride complexes. The reduction of Au(III) by residual Fe2+ in partly altered pyrrhotite and adsorption of colloids by Fe oxyhydroxides may have influenced the location of secondary gold grains within the alteration front. Solubility differences between gold and silver chloride complexes at low temperature account for the low Ag content of secondary gold grains.
The high concentrations of Bi, and thus the association of Au and Bi minerals in pyrrhotite-rich massive sulfide, can be ascribed to the extensive interaction of hydrothermal fluids with sediment in the Escanaba trough. In contrast, the absence of the Au-Bi association in massive sulfides at other ridges, including other sediment-covered sites at Middle Valley and the Guaymas basin, reflects the predominantly basaltic source rocks.