Despite the historical assumption that the bulk of marine “shelf” mud is deposited by gradual fallout from suspension in quiet water, recent studies of modern muddy shelves and their associated rivers show that they are dominated by hyperpycnal fluid mud. This has not been widely applied to the interpretation of ancient sedimentary fluvio-deltaic systems, such as dominate the mud-rich Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway of North America. We analyze two such systems, the Turonian Ferron Sandstone Member of the Mancos Shale Formation, in Utah, and the Cenomanian Dunvegan Formation in Alberta. Paleodischarge estimates of trunk rivers show that they fall within the predicted limits of rivers that are capable of generating hyperpycnal plumes.
The associated prodeltaic mudstones match modern hyperpycnite facies models, and suggest a correspondingly hyperpycnal character. Physical sedimentary structures include diffusely stratified beds that show both normal and inverse grading, indicating sustained flows that waxed and waned. They also display low intensities of bioturbation, which reflect the high physical and chemical stresses of hyperpycnal environments. Distinct “mantle and swirl” biogenic structures indicate soupground conditions, typical of the fluid muds that represent the earliest stages of deposition in a hyperpycnal plume. Hyperpycnal conditions are ameliorated by the fact that these rivers were relatively small, dirty systems that drained an active orogenic belt during humid temperate (Dunvegan Formation) to subtropical (Ferron Sandstone Member) “greenhouse” conditions. During sustained periods of flooding, such as during monsoons, the initial river flood may lower salinities within the inshore area, effectively “prepping” the area and allowing subsequent floods to become hyperpycnal much more easily. Although shelf slopes were too low to allow long-run-out hyperpycnal flows, the storm-dominated nature of the seaway likely allowed fluid mud to be transported for significant distances across and along the paleo-shelf. Rapidly deposited prodeltaic hyperpycnites are thus considered to form a significant component of the muddy shelf successions that comprise the thick shale formations of the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway.