Chaotic deposits are frequently reported in the geological literature and are commonly interpreted as olistostromes or tectonic mélanges. A chaotic complex in the Cenozoic succession of Monferrato (NW Italy) consists of interbedded mud breccia and burrowed silty clays that are pierced by sheared mud breccias and embed carbonate-cemented blocks. These may be represented by microcrystalline limestones or strongly cemented matrix-supported breccias locally containing remains of chemosymbiotic organisms (lucinid bivalves). Moreover, cylindrical concretions, up to 15 cm in diameter and 1 m long, occur in the chaotic complex and crosscut bedding planes at high angles. The cement of all these lithified portions is mainly dolomite characterized by low δ13C values (from −10.3 to −23‰ PDB) and δ18O values up to +7‰ PDB. The δ13C values testify to precipitation of carbonates induced by microbial oxidation of methane, whereas the markedly positive δ18O signature, ubiquitous in the cylindrical concretions, is the evidence for the presence and destabilization of gas hydrates.
The studied section provides a well-exposed example of the geological record of the birth, life, and death of a mud volcano. Unsheared, soft mud breccias represent mud flows along the flanks of the volcano, whereas sheared mud breccias are the result of the injection of unconsolidated overpressured fine-grained sediments, both taking place during "eruptive" phases. They were followed by more quiet stages of hemipelagic sedimentation, burrowing, and CH4 seeping. The cylindrical concretions represent the first described ancient example of the chimneys observed in present-day mud-volcano settings. They are the remnants of a cold-seep plumbing network that crosscut the mud volcano edifice. The chimneys were the pathway for the expulsion toward the sea floor of gas- and sediment-charged fluids likely originated from destabilization of methane gas hydrates. The association of mud breccias and methane-derived carbonates may not be due to mass gravity flows but can be primary and, therefore, is a diagnostic criterion for recognizing chaotic deposits due to mud volcano activity in the geological record.