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The Catahoula Formation; A volcaniclastic unit in east Texas

The Catahoula Formation; A volcaniclastic unit in east Texas



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Geological Society of America Centennial Field Guide—South-Central Section, 1988
The Catahoula Formation; A volcaniclastic unit in east Texas
 Ernest B. Ledger,
 Department of Geology, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas 75962
This site is near the dam at Sam Rayburn Reservoir, about25 mi (40 km) southeast of Lufkin in northern Jasper County,
east Texas (Fig. 1). Jasper Count y is in the Coastal Plain near theLouisiana border.
The Oligocene/Miocene Catahoula Formation of the upperTexas coastal plain is a fluvial and lacustrine volcaniclastic unit
composed of “normal” quartz-rich fluvial material mixed withdistal rhyolitic air-fall ash from coeval volcanic source areas inTrans-Pecos Texas and northern Mexico. It consists of poorly
sorted siltstones, sandstones, and mudstones. The silt-size fractionincludes abundant, slightly altered, volcanic glass shards. Sand-size grains are mostly quartz, some of which are very coarse—the“rice sands”. The clay-size fraction is montmorillonite, an altera-tion product of the glass.
The narrow outcrop belt of the Catahoula Formation,which is somewhat less than 300 ft (100 m) thick in Jasper
County, extends from central Mississippi, through Louisiana and
Texas parallel to the present coastline, and into eastern Mexico
where it is not well studied.Catahoula deposition is characterized by sporadic influxes of 
air-fall ash into low-gradient fluvial and coastal lake environ-
ments. Stratigraphic studies of the Catahoula Formation began as
early as 1857, and the formation has since been studied by nu-merous stratigraphers and sedimentologists, including Hilgard,
Penrose, Dumble, Veatch, and Deussen. Dumble (1918) gives a
summary of this early work. Bailey (1926) named the lateralequivalent in the lower Texas coastal plain of south Texas theGueydan, and along with Renick (1936) established the Cata-
houla as a mid-Tertiary fluvial unit with abundant volcaniclasticmaterial. A more recent summary of stratigraphic nomenclature
is given in Sheldt (1976). Other recent studies of the Catahoulaare concerned with petrology, geochemistry, and uranium ore
Weeks and Eargle (1963) recognized that uranium in thesouth Texas uranium district was derived from local volcanic
material that had been altered by pedogenesis. Differences in thedetails of sedimentation and weathering did not favor economic
accumulations of uranium in east Texas (Ledger and others,
1984). In an extensive petrologic and field study of the CatahoulaFormation in south Texas, McBride and others (1968) described
the sedimentology and nature of diagenesis of sandstones and
finer-grained beds. Also, they discuss in detail the evidence for the
volcanic source area of the Catahoula Formation. McDowell(1978) determined K/Ar ages for many volcanic units of theTrans-Pecos area and found that the volcanic activity peaked in
Figure 1. Map of part of eastern Texas showing location of Catahoula
Formation outcrop at Sam Rayburn reservoir.
the Oligocene. Sheldt ( 1976) studied the petrology of outcropping
Catahoula sandstones just west of the localities presented here. Heestimated the time of deposition of the basal sandstones as MiddleOligocene based on eustatic sea level changes (Vail, 1975). Sheldt(1975) found the sandstones to be subarkoses with igneous rock 
fragments from both the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma and
the volcanic terrane of Trans-Pecos Texas. He found no volcanic
glass shards in the sandstones because the high energy of the
fluvial channel environment destroyed these fragile grains before
deposition. Glass shards are more abundant (up to 90% of the
sediment) in the siltstones, which are lake and floodplain deposits.
The concept of depositional systems has been applied to theCatahoula Formation by Galloway (1977). On the basis of well
logs, he recognizes two depositional systems in Texas, the Chita-
Corrigan fluvial system in east Texas, and the Gueydan fluvial
system of the Rio Grande Embayment. They are separated by theSan Marcos Arch, which may have been breached during part of Catahoula deposition.The volcanic material in the Catahoula Formation was cer-tainly derived from a western source, most probably from Trans-Pecos Texas and northern Mexico, this being the closest source of appropriate age and chemical affinity. Caldera-type eruptive cen-
ters were most active during the Oligocene, and such explosive
eruptions produced three units (Sparks and Walker, 1977). Twoof the units are deposited locally in the source area, an ignimbrite
 E. B. Ledger 
Figure 2. Catahoula Formation outcrop near the dam at Sam Rayburn
Reservoir, northern Jasper County, southeastern Texas.
and a pumice-fall. The third unit, the co-ignimbrite ash-fall, isdeposited over a wide area and may be measurably thick morethan 620 mi (1,000 km) from the eruption. During an eruption,
ascending magma consists of early-formed crystals suspended in avolatile-rich magma. The crystals are preferentially incorporatedin the ignimbrite, while the magma freezes to volcanic glass and isincorporated in all three units. The co-ignimbrite ash-fall is glass-
rich, and the constituent shards exhibit a “bubbly” morphologybecause of exsolution of volatiles during the eruption, which
propels them high into the atmosphere. During Catahoula deposi-tion, upper level winds carried ash clouds to the east. After depo-
sition as a mantle over the paleosurface, the easily eroded ash
washed into the fluvial systems. This resulted in about a five-foldincrease in volume in the fluvial systems based on the areal ratioof floodplain area to total area in present day east Texas. Delivery
of ash was sporadic, but geologically almost continual. Siltyfloodplain deposits were highly tuffaceous, so mudflows were
common because of the buildup of ash by erosion of surrounding
The only fossils found in the Catahoula are abundant plant
fragments including petrified pine, oak, and palm logs, smallerreedy plants and palmetto, and diatoms in the lake deposits.
Catahoula fossils need more study.
The middle of the Catahoula section is exposed in the vicin-it y of the dam and spillway (Fig. 2, locality 1). The base is poorlyexposed about 1.2 mi (2 km) to the northwest (Fig. 2, locality 2).
Downstream to the south the upper part of the formation is
homogeneously clayey and very poorly exposed. At the measuredsection (Fig. 3) it consists of overbank sandstones and tuffaceous
siltstones and mudstones. The siltstones are particularly glass
Figure 3. Measured section from the middle part of the Catahoula For-
mation, along the spillway south of the dam, Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
shard–rich and commonly contain diatoms, but most units are
more than 50% silt-size volcanic glass shards exhibiting mostly
bubble-wall and micropumice morphologies. A few shards aresand-size, but are difficult to see with the hand lens (Fig. 4).Details of glass share morphology are shown in Ledger (1981)
and Ledger and others (1984).The following is a brief description of the units in the mea-sured section at the spillway just south the dam:
Unit 13.
Mudstone; light gray, no color change with weath-ering, some sand and silt, lower contact conformable, 7.8 ft (2.4m) thick.
Unit 12.
Sandstone; quartzose, white, no color change withweathering, subangular to subrounded, some silica cementation,upper contact not exposed, 2 ft (0.6 m) thick.
Unit 11.
Sandstone; light brown, poorly sorted, weathers
lighter color, some silica cementation, lower contact conformable,3.9 ft (1.2 m) thick.
Unit 10.
Sandstone; light gray, no color change with weath-

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