The Azuero Peninsula, located in SW Panama, is a region characterized by a long-lived intra-oceanic subduction zone. Volcanism began in Late Cretaceous time, as the result of subduction of the Farallon plate beneath the Caribbean plate. Usually, ancient volcanic arcs related to intra-oceanic subduction zones are not preserved, because they are in areas with difficult access or covered by modern volcanic arc material. However, on the Azuero peninsula, a complete section of the volcanic arc together with arc basement rocks provides the opportunity to study the sedimentation and volcanism in the initial stages of volcanic arc development.
The lithostratigraphic unit which records fore-arc evolution is the “Río Quema” Formation (RQF), a volcanic apron composed of volcanic and volcaniclastic sedimentary rocks interbedded with hemipelagic limestones, submarine dacite lava domes, and intruded by basaltic-andesitic dikes. The “Río Quema” Formation, interpreted as a fore-arc basin infilling sequence, lies discordantly on top of arc basement rocks. The exceptionally well exposed arc basement, fore-arc basin, volcanic arc rocks and arc-related intrusive rocks provide an unusual opportunity to study the relationship between volcanism, sedimentation and magmatism during the arc development, with the objective to reconstruct its evolution. The “Río Quema” Formation can be divided into three groups: 1) proximal apron, a sequence dominated by lava flows, interbedded with breccias, mass flows and channel fill, all intruded by basaltic dikes. The rocks represent the nearest materials to the volcanic source, reflecting a coarse sediment supply. This depositional environment is similar to gravel-rich fan deltas and submarine ramps; 2) medial apron, characterized by a volcanosedimentary succession dominated by andesitic lava flows, polymictic volcanic conglomerates and crystal-rich sandstones with minor pelagic sediments and turbidites. These rocks were deposited from high-density turbidity currents and debris flows, directly derived from erupted material and gravitational collapse of an unstable volcanic edifice or volcaniclastic apron; 3) distal apron, a thick succession of sandy to muddy volcaniclastic rocks, interbedded with pelagic limestones and minor andesitic lavas, intruded by dacite domes and by basaltic to andesitic dikes. Bedforms and fossils suggest a quiet, relatively deep-water environment characterized by settling of clay and silt (claystone, siltstone) and by dilute turbidity currents of reworked volcaniclastic detritus.
The timing of the initial stages of the volcanic arc has been constrained through a biostratigraphic study, using planktonic foraminifera and radiolarian species. The fossil assemblage indicates that the age of the “Río Quema” Formation ranges from Late Campanian to Maastrichtian, providing a good constraint for the development of the volcanic arc and volcaniclastic apron, during the initial stages of an intra-oceanic subduction zone.