Abstract

Abundant trace fossils occur within rhythmically interbedded black and gray shales of the Chattanooga Shale (Upper Devonian) in central Tennessee. Burrows cross the boundaries between layers and tend to obscure the contacts between alternate layers. Infills of individual burrows often display an array of complex, convoluted features, apparently due to mixing of soft to soupy black and gray muds. Assuming that the burrowers were elongate worm-like organisms, experiments were made to study the relationships between the general morphology of burrowers (simple worms, worms with appendages, etc.), sediment viscosity, and textural features. Rubber bait worms were pulled through superimposed layers of plaster in a first set of experiments. Comparable experiments were then conducted with earthworms. The resulting textures were studied by sawing the hardened plaster blocks perpendicular and horizontal to bedding. The explored viscosities ranged from that of heavy motor oil to that of lithium grease (at 258 degrees C). The study shows that (1) convolute textures observed in plaster experiments closely resemble those seen in Chattanooga Shale burrows; (2) the degree of convolution increases as the viscosity of the substrate decreases; (3) the length of the worm determines the extent of mixing between layers; (4) mixing patterns produced by smooth worms and worms with appendages, although similar, contrast in detail; (5) earthworms and bait worms produce generally similar structures but show certain differences due to contrasting styles of locomotion (peristalsis vs. unidirectional pull). "Virtual" compaction and decompaction of digital images shows close resemblance between experimentally produced structures and burrow textures from the Chattanooga Shale, suggesting that the latter were indeed produced by worm-like animals that moved through semi-fluid muds.

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