While spatial facies patterns can be observed in modern systems, only vertical facies successions can usually be examined in ancient deposits. Lateral facies relationships (depositional models) and relative sea-level changes throughout time are traditionally deduced from correlation of vertical facies successions along transects perpendicular to inferred paleo-shorelines. Establishing vertical facies successions and their corresponding time-equivalent proximal to distal facies patterns are, therefore, paramount in reconstructing ancient carbonate depositional systems and their response to sea-level change. In the present study of well-exposed panoramics of late Tortonian (8.1 Ma) mixed heterozoan carbonate and terrigenous deposits in La Chanata area in Sierra de Gádor, Almería, SE Spain, we show that frequent changes in facies width make it difficult to predict how variation in sea level impacts the facies distribution. The following facies are recognized: shoreline conglomerates directly overlie an erosion surface on the basement; terrigenous coralline-algal packstones extend basinwards from the conglomerates and are interpreted as shallow-water deposits stabilized by seagrass. There exist three types of facies consisting of relatively well-preserved, parautochthonous bioclasts, which occur generally seawards of the packstones: a) branching-coralline rudstones that formed from rhodolith (maërl) beds, both shorewards and basinwards from seagrass meadows where b) foliose-coralline rudstones to floatstones accumulated, and c) lenses of Heterostegina rudstones to floatstones changing laterally to any of the coralline algal facies. The factory facies of a–c show a patchy distribution with no definite arrangement in shoreline-parallel belts. The evolution of the depositional system is as follows: after filling paleovalleys in the erosion surface, deposition took place on a homoclinal ramp. The hybrid heterozoan carbonate–terrigenous deposits show a general retrogradation altered by one episode of proximal facies progradation. The width of facies across the ramp changes markedly in different episodes of relative sea-level rise: in several episodes of transgression, terrigenous coralline-algal packstones spread across the ramp locally overlying more distal facies, such as branching-coralline rudstones, thus generating regressive vertical patterns during relative sea-level rise. In other transgressive episodes packstones disappear, and the a–b factory facies pass laterally into conglomerate. The stratigraphic changes in facies width might be due to changes in general energy caused by climate variations or, alternatively, to the amount of relative sea-level rise. Large sea-level rise would result in relatively deep and calm conditions, thus favoring little fragmentation of large bioclasts during accumulation of the factory facies. Conversely, little change in accommodation would have resulted in higher-energy environments with concomitant increased physical erosion of the coralline-algae factories, thus resulting in mostly sand-size bioclasts in the packstones. In this environmental context, vertical change from distal to proximal facies can result from relative sea-level rise with increased mobilization and lateral expansion of proximal facies across the ramp. This outcome challenges the adequacy of using vertical lithofacies successions to reconstruct relative sea-level change in carbonate depositional systems.

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