Abstract

Introduction and geodynamic setting. – Syn-rift exhumation of mantle rocks in a continental breakup zone was highlighted along the present-day west Iberian passive margin [e.g. Boillot et al., 1988, 1995; Whitmarsh et al., 1995, 2001; Beslier et al., 1996; Brun and Beslier, 1996; Boillot and Coulon, 1998; Krawczyk et al., 1996; Girardeau et al., 1998] and along the fossil Tethyan margins [e.g. Froitzheim and Manatschal, 1996; Manatschal and Bernoulli, 1996; Marroni et al., 1998; Müntener et al., 2000; Desmurs et al., 2001]. Along the west Iberian margin, serpentinized peridotite and scarce gabbro and basalt lay directly under the sediments, over a 30 to 130 km-wide transition between the thinned continental crust and the first oceanic crust [Girardeau et al., 1988, 1998; Kornprobst and Tabit, 1988; Boillot et al., 1989; Beslier et al., 1990, 1996; Cornen et al., 1999]. The formation of a wide ocean-continent transition (OCT), mostly controlled by tectonics and associated with an exhumation of deep lithospheric levels, would be an essential stage of continental breakup and a characteristic of magma-poor passive margins. The southwest Australian margin provides an opportunity to test and to generalize the models proposed for the west Iberian margin, as both margins present many analogies.

The south Australian margin formed during the Gondwana breakup in the Mesozoic, along a NW-SE oblique extension direction [Willcox and Stagg, 1990]. From north to south, the continental slope is bounded by (1) a magnetic quiet zone (MQZ) where the nature of the basement is ambiguous [Talwani et al., 1979; Tikku and Cande, 1999; Sayers et al., 2001], (2) a zone where the basement shows a rough topography associated with poorly expressed magnetic anomalies [Cande and Mutter, 1982; Veevers et al., 1990; Tikku and Cande, 1999; Sayers et al., 2001], and which is the eastward prolongation of the Diamantina Zone, and (3) an Eocene oceanic domain. The continental breakup zone is believed to be located near or at the southern edge of the MQZ [Cande and Mutter, 1982; Veevers et al., 1990; Sayers et al., 2001]. Breakup is dated at 125 Ma [Stagg and Willcox, 1992], 95 ± 5 Ma [Veevers, 1986] or at 83 Ma [Sayers et al., 2001], and followed by ultra-slow seafloor spreading until the Eocene (43 Ma), and fast spreading afterwards [Weissel and Hayes, 1972; Cande and Mutter, 1982; Veevers et al., 1990; Tikku and Cande, 1999]. The western end of the margin (fig. 1) is starved and bounded in the OCT by basement ridges where peridotite, gabbro and basalt were previously dredged [Nicholls et al., 1981]. Altimetry data [Sandwell and Smith, 1997] show that some of these ridges are continuous over 1500 km along the OCT of the south Australian margin and of the conjugate Antarctic margin.

The objectives of the MARGAU/MD110 cruise (May-June 1998; [Royer et al., 1998]; fig. 2) were to define the morpho-structure and the nature and evolution of the basement in the SW Australian OCT. An area of 180 000 km2 was explored with swath bathymetry. Gravimetric data (11382 km) were simultaneously recorded whereas few single channel seismic (1353 km) and magnetic (5387 km) data were obtained due to technical difficulties. Crystalline basement rocks, made of varied and locally well-preserved lithologies, were dredged at 11 sites located on structural highs.

Main results. The bathymetric map unveils three E-W domains (fig. 2). From north to south, they are the continental slope of Australia, prolonged westward by that of the Naturaliste Plateau, a 160 km-wide intermediate flat sedimented area corresponding to the MQZ, and a 100 km-wide zone of rough E-W oriented topography which continues the Diamantina Zone (fig. 3). The first two domains are cut through in three segments by two major fracture zones (FZ), the Leeuwin FZ along the eastern side of the Naturaliste Plateau, and the Naturaliste FZ along its western flank. These NW-SE trending FZ terminate north of the E-W trending fabric of the Diamantina Zone. Accordingly, extension occurred along the NW-SE direction during the formation of the slope and of the MQZ, and then turned to N-S during the formation of the Diamantina Zone.

In the Diamantina Zone, the mantle rocks dredged at Site MG-DR02 are mainly lherzolites, rich in pyroxenitic micro-layers, and pyroxenites. They contain spinel rimmed by plagioclase and locally coronas of olivine + plagioclase between opx and spinel, which suggest that they underwent some subsolidus reequilibration in the plagioclase field (fig. 4C). Westward (Site DR09), the mantle rocks are harzburgitic, with lesser pyroxenitic bandings and no plagioclase. The rocks have coarse-grained porphyroclastic textures that are locally overprinted by narrow mylonitic shear bands, and then by a cataclastic deformation, which indicate decreasing temperatures and increasing stresses during their evolution. Basalts were sampled at Sites MG-DR01, −04, −05, and together with gabbros at Sites MG-DR02, -03, -09. They have a transitional composition as shown by their REE patterns, except one sample from site MG-DR-05 which is an alkaline basalt (fig. 5). The gabbros are clearly intrusive in the peridotite at Sites DR02 and -09. They contain olivine and clinopyroxene (cpx) at Site DR02, cpx, plagioclase and hornblende at Site DR03, and cpx and amphibole or orthopyroxene or olivine at Site DR09 (fig. 4D). At that site, a tonalite containing K-feldspar and biotite and alkaline in composition (fig. 5), has also been sampled. All these plutonic rocks display either their primary magmatic textures or secondary porphyroclastic ones that are locally overprinted by mylonitic shear zones (fig. 4E). Retrograde minerals of amphibolite to greenschist facies developed during the deformation. The basalts are clearly intrusive in the gabbros at Site DR03. They are altered and exhibit porphyric textures with abundant plagioclase and plagioclase + olivine phenocrysts at Sites DR03, -04, -08, -10, and have a transitional composition (fig. 5).

The nature and evolution of the peridotites and associated gabbros are compatible with an exhumation under a rift zone, on both sides of the Leeuwin FZ. It includes a mylonitic deformation which attests that these rocks underwent a shearing deformation under lithospheric conditions, in probable relation with their exhumation during the early stages of the oceanic opening. The crustal rocks are represented only by intrusive gabbros and by transitional basalts.

In the MQZ, the peridotites recovered at Site MG-DR06 are mainly spinel and plagioclase lherzolites (fig. 4B) and a few pyroxenites (fig. 4A) with high temperature porphyroclastic textures. Their discovery indicates that the basement in the MQZ is not exclusively formed of thinned continental crust. Lavas sampled westward of the Leeuwin FZ at Site DR10 have also transitional compositions (fig. 5).

On the Australian slope, samples dredged at Site MG-DR07 are continental quartz-bearing rocks (mostly gneisses and rare granites), some showing a high grade paragenesis (upper amphibolite to granulite facies) marked by the presence of K-feldspar, biotite, sillimanite and/or kyanite and garnet, and without primary muscovite (fig. 4G). Some of these rocks underwent an intense mylonitic shear deformation followed by post-tectonic recrystallisation or migmatization. Depending on the age of the high grade evolution (metamorphism and shearing), these rocks document either the syn-rift exhumation of lower continental crust, or the formation of the older Australian craton.

On the slope of the Naturaliste Plateau, at Site DR11, rocks of oceanic origin (gabbro-diorites/dolerite/basalt; fig. 4F) were dredged together with acid rocks (gneiss and granites) of probable continental origin, some having a quartz, K-feldspar, biotite and garnet metamorphic paragenesis (fig. 4H). At that site, the transitional basalts intrude the gabbros and associated dolerites. The presence of metamorphic acid rocks indicate that the Naturaliste Plateau is likely a continental fragment that was later intruded by mafic rocks, whose origin and ages of intrusion have to be determined.

Discussion and conclusions. – The retrograde tectono-metamorphic evolution of the peridotites recovered in the MQZ, which includes a reequilibration in the plagioclase field (marked by the development of olivine and plagioclase after spinel and pyroxene), is compatible with an exhumation under a rift zone [Girardeau et al., 1988; Kornprobst and Tabit, 1988; Cornen et al., 1999]. By analogy with the Iberia Abyssal Plain, the MQZ could represent a wide OCT where the mantle was exhumed and stretched mostly by amagmatic extension before the initiation of oceanic accretion [Beslier et al., 1996; Boillot and Coulon, 1998] (fig. 6). This hypothesis is supported by the tectonic structures (horsts and grabens) imaged in the seismic data over the MQZ [Boeuf and Doust, 1975]. Accordingly, the limit of the continental crust would be located at the foot of the slope, i.e. 160 km (or 250 km in the NW-SE extension direction) northward of the assumed location of the OCT at the southern edge of the MQZ. The age of the Australia-Antarctic breakup would thus be (1) older than that inferred from the magnetic anomalies (circa 95 Ma [Cande and Mutter, 1982; Veevers, 1986]), which would rather date the onset of oceanic accretion, and (2) older than the age of the breakup unconformity estimated as Santonian (83 Ma), further east, in the Great Australian Bight [Sayers et al., 2001].

The origin of the Naturaliste Plateau, continental or oceanic, is still disputed. The discovery of metamorphic rocks of probable continental origin on the southern flank of the Plateau (Site DR11) shows that it consists at least partially of rocks of the Gondwana continent.

All the samples from the Diamantina Zone confirm that its basement is made of a peridotite-gabbro-basalt assemblage. The nature and age of the peridotites and of the associated magmas will help understanding the origin of this domain, which can result either from Neocomian seafloor spreading with further remobilization during the Australia-Antarctic separation, or from post-Neocomian ultra-slow seafloor spreading. Because of the omnipresence of extensive tectonic structures (fig. 3) and of the relatively small proportion of crustal rocks relative to the mantle rocks, we argue that the formation of the Diamantina Zone was mainly controlled by tectonics rather than by magmatic processes.

In conclusion, the data collected along the southwest Australian margin during the MARGAU/MD110 survey evidence two major tectonic phases with formation of a wide OCT where abundant mantle rocks, in association with few mafic rocks, outcrop or lay directly beneath the sediments. The evolution of the crystalline rocks is compatible with an exhumation under a rift zone during a phase of magma-poor extension primarily controlled by tectonic processes. The domains where basement highs were sampled seem to be continuous over more than 1500 km eastward along the south Australian margin. Additional evidence on such large-scale structural continuity and on the nature of the associated basement highs may help generalizing the models for continental breakup and formation of non-volcanic passive margins, where oceanic accretion does not immediately follow continental breakup.

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