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Bioturbation: Reworking Sediments

for Better or Worse

Murray K. Gingras
S. George Pemberton
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Petroleum geologists are interested in bioturbation because it reveals clues

Michael Smith
Maturn, Venezuela

and flow dynamics.

Oilfield Review Winter 2014/2015: 26, no. 4.


Copyright 2015 Schlumberger.
FMI is a mark of Schlumberger.
1. Ali SA, Clark WJ, Moore WR and Dribus JR: Diagenesis
and Reservoir Quality, Oilfield Review 22, no. 2
(Summer 2010): 1427.
2. Al-Hajeri MM, Al Saeed M, Derks J, Fuchs T, Hantschel T,
Kauerauf A, Neumaier M, Schenk O, Swientek O,
TessenN, Welte D, Wygrala B, Kornpihl D and
Peters K: Basin and Petroleum System Modeling,
Oilfield Review 21, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 1429.

about the depositional environment. Bioturbation can also destroy or enhance


porosity and permeability, thereby affecting reservoir quality, reserves calculations

Sediments undergo several modifications to


become the source rocks, reservoirs and seals
that generate and contain petroleum reserves.
The changes that occur between deposition and
lithification, collectively known as diagenesis,
include the processes of compaction, cementation, dissolution and recrystallization.1 But before
any of these occur, another process can considerably affect rock properties. As soon as they are
deposited, sediments can be altered by bioturbation: the disruption of sediment and soil by
living things.

Bioturbation is typically a small-scale but


potentially significant geologic process that may
occur wherever plants or animals live. It can take
several forms, including displacement of soil by
plant roots, tunnels created by burrowing animals and footprints left by dinosaurs (next page).
Of most interest to the oil and gas industry
are the changes brought about by organisms
that are active near the water/sediment interface in marine settings. Such activities are typically limited to a meter or so in depth but may
cover an area of tens to hundreds of square kilo-

> Surface expressions of burrows under the surface. As the tide retreats at the Bay of Vallay, North Uist, Scotland, small wormlike animals burrow into the
soft, silty sand searching for food. By the thousands, they create shallow tunnels but leave waste on the surface (left). In this example, the fecal piles cover
an area of at least 5 km2 [2 mi2] (right).

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> Bioturbation on the surface and in the subsurface. Bioturbation includes animal imprints and tunnels created by burrowing
animals. The photographs of the crab burrow (left ) and the ant nest (middle) are from the sandy backshore of beaches near
Savannah, Georgia, USA. (Photographs courtesy of Murray K. Gingras.) The photograph of the dinosaur footprint (right ) is from
Dinosaur State Park, Connecticut, USA.

meters. Understanding the behaviors of these


animals helps geologists characterize the environmental conditions prevalent during a brief
interval of geologic time: after the sediments
were deposited, but while they were still soft
enough to deform.
For many years, bioturbation studies found
application mainly in exploration geologyin
estimating paleobathymetry, assessing depositional environment and identifying key stratigraphic surfaces. These are all important inputs
to the geologic models used for determining
potential source rock and reservoir quality and
for modeling basins and petroleum systems.2

Winter 2014/2015

Recently, however, geologists have expanded the


application of bioturbation to address production
geology challenges.
Animal activity in sediments disrupts layering,
creates flow pathways, enables exchange of minerals and fluids between sedimentary layers,
changes pore fluid chemistry and adds or removes
organic matter. These changes can facilitate or
impede mobility of diagenetic fluids, increase or
decrease porosity and permeability and alter permeability homogeneity
and isotropy. Recognizing
Oilfield Review
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14 them in reservoir
these effects and
including
Bioturbation
Fig. 1production presimulation models
can improve
ORAUT14-BIOT 1
dictions and enhanced oil recovery operations.

This article describes ways in which animal


activity can affect sedimentary deposits and
focuses on reservoir rocks. Examples from both
siliciclastic and carbonate formations show how
geologists use this information to infer ancient
environmental conditions and characterize present-day formation properties.
Life Just Under the Surface
Animals that live near the water/sediment
interface often leave evidence of their lifestyles. For example, surface expressions of subsurface bioturbation can be discerned in the
intertidal zone of a beach (previous page). In

47

> Traces, shafts and tunnels. Marine animals that live at or near the sediment/water interface leave traces of various shapes, sizes and complexity.
(Adapted from Gingras et al, reference3.)

Higher Energy Dynamic Habitats


Escaping
(Fugichnia)

Dwelling
(Domichnia)

Crawling
(Repichnia)

Lower Energy Stable Habitats


Feeding
(Fodichnia)

Farming
(Agrichnia)

Grazing
(Pascichnia)

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Bioturbation Fig. 3
ORAUT14-BIOT 3

> Traces of animal behavior. Ichnologists interpret traces to indicate animal activities such as escaping, dwelling, crawling, feeding, farming and grazing,
among others. Traces may be variations or combinations of these. The behaviors are loosely associated with depositional settings of higher energy (top)
and lower energy (bottom) and may be considered a continuum. A variety of species might produce similar structures if their activities are similar. A single
species can create several kinds of traces while performing different activities and the traces may vary if made in different substrates. (Adapted from
Gingras et al, reference3.)

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this case, thousands of piles of sand-rich fecal


coils dot the floor of a shallow bay. These fecal
strands are produced by burrowing, wormlike
creatures that take in the bulk sediment, ingest
nutrients and excrete the indigestible rock
grains. Their subsurface burrows may be tens of
centimeters deep, and an assemblage or community of these organisms can affect an area of
several square kilometers.
Infauna, or animals that live in sedimentsclams, tubeworms, crabs and shrimp,
for examplecan disrupt sediments in many
ways (previous page, top). They may create
tubelike tunnels and shafts of varying inclination. These burrows may be simple, shallow
unlined holes or may have compacted walls, be
lined with contrasting material or have multiple openings. The burrows may remain open
for a period of time, collapse or be filled immediately with similar or contrasting sediments
(right). Tunnels in somewhat consolidated
sediments have a better chance of staying open
than those in softer sediments.
Some infaunal activity can cause complete
mixing of a volume of sediment but leave no
detectable traces. For example, animals foraging
in layered sediments may disrupt the substrate so
completely that the layering is no longer visible,
causing the sediment to appear to be one massive, homogeneous interval.
Aquatic animals that live on the sediment surface, epifauna, can also leave traces of their
activity. Although these animalsmussels, sea
stars, flounder and some crabsmay not burrow
or modify the sediments to a great degree, they
may leave evidence in the form of furrows and
other tracks.
In the rock record, bioturbation manifests
itself mainly as fossilized traces of animal activity:
fossilized imprints, tracks, excavations, dwellings
or waste products. The study of these traces is the
field of ichnology. This specialty focuses on using
trace fossils, or ichnofossils, to decipher paleoecological aspects of sedimentary environments. The
types, number and variety of traces may help
geologists determine aspects of the depositional
environment such as whether sediments were
deposited quickly or slowly or in shallow or deep
marine or nonmarine waters.
3. Gingras MK, Bann KL, MacEachern JA and Pemberton SG:
A Conceptual Framework for the Application of Trace
Fossils, in MacEachern JA, Bann KL, Gingras MK and
Pemberton SG (eds): Applied Ichnology. Tulsa: Society for
Sedimentary Geology, Short Course Notes 52 (2009): 126.
The Latin words for these trace fossilsfodichnia,
domichnia, fugichnia, cubichnia, repichnia, pascichnia
and agrichniaare used to classify them according
to behavior.

Ichnofossils are interpreted to be related to


animal survival strategies associated with sedimentary and environmental conditions. They are
different from body fossils in that they represent
a behavior or activity, not a particular organism.
Only infrequently, such as in the case of some
dinosaur footprints, can ichnologists identify the
animal species that created an ichnofossil.
Instead, they attempt to deduce what the animal
was doing when it created the trace.

By studying trace fossils, ichnologists have


identified several types of animal behavior, including feeding, dwelling, fleeing, resting, crawling,
grazing and farming (previous page, bottom).3
Depending on the activity, the associated traces
may be found on the sediment surfacewhich
eventually becomes the interface between two
layersor within a sediment layer. Ichnologists
use the evidence of these behaviors to characterize the paleoenvironment of a rock layer.

3 cm

> Contrasting fill. This burrow in fine-grained sediment is filled with


coarse-grained material. This U-shaped trace is interpreted to be the
dwelling burrow of an annelid or a crustacean in a low-energy shoreface or
sandy tidal flat environment. (Photograph copyright S. George Pemberton.)

Winter 2014/2015

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Oilfield Review

M
Mottled
or
M
Massive
Appearing

Burrowed

Pervasively burrowed

Mud

Sand

Unburrowed or
Laminated

Freshwater
or
Oxygen depleted

Cross-bedded

Lacustrine, quiescent
bay or deep marine

High sedimentation rate

Laminated

Load-casted bedding
contacts and abundant
organic detritus

Quiescent bay
or lagoon, possibly
tidal flat

Freshwater
or
High sedimentation rate

Penecontemporaneous
deformation observed
in association with
massive media

Moderate to rare,
evenly distributed

Sand

Burrowed contacts
at top or bottom of
massive-appearing
sediment, or vestigial
burrows evident locally

Large,
diverse

Distal prodelta
open bay

Small

River influenced delta,


restricted bay or
estuary

Moderate to rare
Sporadically distributed

Mud

Probably shallow marine


or marginal marine
Probably inner shelf
fine-grained intertidal
flat with low tide range
or (less likely) shallow
lacustrine

Laminated to scrambled

High sedimentation
rates and variable
depositional conditions

Small

Sediment
gravity flow

or

High sedimentation rates,


good food resource and
generally consistent conditions

Large,
diverse

Downward
hydraulic jump

or

or
Fluvial, fluviolacustrine
or deltaic

True cryptic
bioturbation
bedding

or

Inner shelf
offshore

Large, diverse
ichnofossils
Small
ichnofossils,
low diversity

Freshwater

Planar

Unimodal
distribution of grains,
no mineralogic diversity
of grains

Low sedimentation rates


and good food resource

Event sedimentation
generally dominated (temporally)
by fair-weather processes
Proximal prodelta
or delta front
bay mouth complex
Inner estuary
tidal channel

Large,
diverse

Lower shoreface

Small

Bays or deltas
Rarely point bars

> Interpreting depositional conditions from bioturbation texture. Classifying sedimentary textures into three typesunburrowed or laminated, burrowed and
mottled or massive appearinghelps ichnologists infer depositional environment. (Adapted from Gingras et al, reference3.)

A basic way of interpreting sedimentary rocks


is to divide them into three main types of lithified
sediment: unburrowed, burrowed and massive
appearing (above).4 Classification of these types
serves as the starting point for interpreting the
depositional conditions under which such sediments formed.

UnburrowedSediments that are relatively


undisturbed, such as those with original layering
intact and with little or no evidence of bioturbation, are usually ascribed to one or more of the
Oilfield environments:
Review
following depositional
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freshwater, where
there areFig.
few6 deeply burrowBioturbation
ing organismsORAUT14-BIOT 6

anoxic settings (poorly oxygenated)


constantly shifting sediments on the seafloor
high sedimentation rates
arid or frozen locales.
Unburrowed sandy sediments usually indicate
freshwater deposition or shifting sedimentation.
However, many continental environments do

4. Gingras et al, reference 3.


5. Buatois LA and Mngano MG: Animal-Substrate
Interaction in Freshwater Environments: Applications of
Ichnology in Facies and Sequence Stratigraphic Analysis
of Fluvio-Lacustrine Successions, in McIlroy D (ed):
The Application of Ichnology to Palaeoenvironmental and
Stratigraphic Analysis. London: The Geological Society,
Special Publication 228 (2004): 311333.

6. Hickey JJ and Henk B: Lithofacies Summary of the


Mississippian Barnett Shale, Mitchell 2 T.P. Sims Well,
Wise County, Texas, AAPG Bulletin 91, no. 4
(April 2007): 437443.
Loucks RG and Ruppel SC: Mississippian Barnett Shale:
Lithofacies and Depositional Setting of a Deep-Water
Shale-Gas Succession in the Fort Worth Basin, Texas,
AAPG Bulletin 91, no. 4 (April 2007): 579601.
OBrien NR: The Effects of Bioturbation on the Fabric
of Shale, Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 57, no. 3
(May 1987): 449455.

7. Taylor AM and Goldring R: Description and Analysis of


Bioturbation and Ichnofabric, Journal of the Geological
Society 150, no. 1 (February 1993): 141148.
8. A colonization event occurs when one or more species
spread to a new area.
9. Pemberton SG, MacEachern JA, Gingras MK and
Saunders TDA: Biogenic Chaos: Cryptobioturbation and
the Work of Sedimentologically Friendly Organisms,
Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
270, no. 34 (December 15, 2008): 273279.
10. Gingras et al, reference 3.

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exhibit trace fossils.5 Unburrowed fine-grained


laminated sediments rich in clay and silt are typically interpreted to result from sedimentation in
freshwater or anoxic conditions, although high
sedimentation rates might yield the same result.
Many organic-rich source rocks, some of which
are targets of tight oil and gas shale plays, are
examples of fine-grained sediments deposited in
environments with a low oxygen supply. Because
such depositional environments are not welcoming to many animals, the sediments may exhibit
layering and ordered clay grains and show little
or no bioturbation.6
BurrowedCategorization of burrowed
media is based on the distribution of ichnofossils
and characteristicsprimarily size and diversityof the ichnological assemblage. Ichnologists
have developed a bioturbation index (BI) to
describe the degree to which sediments exhibit
bioturbation.7 The index classifies, on a scale of
zero to six, the abundance of traces and amount
of trace overlap (right). The BI is related to the
duration of colonization events and, through
them, to rates of sedimentation.8
Highly to completely burrowed sediments are
evidence of both a significant infaunal biomass
and conditions of slow sediment accumulation.
Moderate to sparse bioturbation, characterized by
evenly distributed trace fossils, indicates a lower
infaunal biomass and higher sedimentation rate.
The size and diversity of ichnofossils in burrowed
media reflect the chemical aspects of the depositional waters. For example, in marine deposits,
large trace fossils are indicative of high dissolved
oxygen content and stable ocean salinity. A preponderance of small trace fossils suggests salinityor oxygen-stressed environments. High diversity
of fossil types is related to oxygen content and
salinity and also indicates abundant nutrients.
MassiveSediments that appear to be massive, or homogeneous in texture, can result from
any of the following:
lack of sufficient grain-size variation to define
sedimentary lamination
sedimentation rate high enough that no grainsize segregation occurs
mechanical mixing from soft-sediment deformation during gravity flows
high degrees of biogenic churning.
Only the last of these is caused by bioturbation, and recognizing it as such is not always easy
because the rock may appear homogeneous
(right).9 It has therefore been given the name
cryptobioturbation or cryptic bioturbation. The
homogeneous texture is caused by rapid reworking of sediments by organisms in search of nutri-

Winter 2014/2015

Bioturbation
Index

Percent
Bioturbated

Classification

1 to 4

Sparse bioturbation, bedding distinct and few discrete


traces or escape structures

5 to 30

Low bioturbation, bedding distinct, low trace density


and escape structures often common

31 to 60

Moderate bioturbation, bedding boundaries sharp,


traces discrete and overlap rare

61 to 90

High bioturbation, bedding boundaries indistinct and


high trace density with overlap common

91 to 99

Intense bioturbation, bedding completely disturbed


(just visible), limited reworking and later burrows discrete

100

No bioturbation

Complete bioturbation and sediment reworking


because of repeated overprinting

> Bioturbation index. The bioturbation index is a scheme for quantifying the
degree of sediment bioturbation. The index grades trace abundance and
overlap and the resultant loss of primary sedimentary fabric. (Adapted from
Taylor and Goldring, reference7.)

ents. Complete obliteration of layering is the


highest degree of cryptobioturbation; layering
may be disrupted to lesser degrees and still be
bioturbated. Cryptobioturbation in sand usually
indicates a marine depositional environment, but
in fine-grained sediment it may be produced in
marine or freshwater environments.10
Sequence Stratigraphic Interpretation
Through sequence stratigraphy, geologists identify sequences, or sedimentary deposits that are
bounded by unconformities, which are surfaces

characterized by erosion, lack of deposition or


abrupt changes in depositional environment.
Identifying the key bounding surfaces and correlating them with data from wells and seismic
surveys form the basis of the sequence stratigraphic approach. In creating an integrated
interpretation, geologists use trace fossils along
with sedimentological analysis, core measurements and well logs to characterize sediments
within each sequence and identify the depositional surfaces and discontinuities that separate
sedimentary sequences.

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Bioturbation Fig. 7
ORAUT14-BIOT 7

3 cm

3 cm

> Cryptic bioturbation. Some biogenic activity leaves no distinct traces but instead results in
widespread, subtle disruption of the original sedimentary fabric. In an outcrop-derived core from the
Cretaceous Ferron Sandstone, Utah, USA (left ), bioturbation is extensive, but some layering is still
intact. Cryptic bioturbation in a wellbore core from the Eocene Mirador Formation, Colombia (middle),
has destroyed much of the original layering. In a wellbore core from the Middle Jurassic Bruce field
in the North Sea (right), it has obliterated any sign of layering. (Adapted from Pemberton et al,
reference 9.)

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Depth,
ft

Depth,
ft

X,X06

X,X06

X,X07

X,X07

X,X08

X,X08

X,X09

X,X09

X,X10

X,X10

X,X11

X,X11

X,X12

X,X12

X,X13

X,X13

X,X14

X,X14

3 cm

> Orinoco wellbore image. A feature in an FMI image (left) may be interpreted (middle) as a U-shaped
burrow. A photograph from an unrelated core (right ) shows a burrow of the type (an ichnofossil known
as Arenicolites) that may be present in the FMI image. The green lines represent formation structural
dip; the yellow lines are fractures. (Photograph copyright S. George Pemberton.)

Depth,
ft

Depth,
ft

X,X03

X,X03

3 cm
X,X04

X,X04

X,X05

X,X05

X,X06

X,X06

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X,X07

X,X08

X,X08

X,X09

X,X09

X,X10

X,X10

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Bioturbation Fig. 9
ORAUT14-BIOT 9

> Wellbore image of possible bioturbation. The FMI image (left) has high-resistivity (light colored)
features that may be interpreted (middle) to be burrows resembling the ichnofossil Thalassinoides
(right ) in an unrelated core. The structures are classified as dwelling and feeding burrows of a
deposit-feeding crustacean living in lower shoreface to offshore environments. (Photograph copyright
S. George Pemberton.)

52

An important factor in the distribution of


organisms is the surface they inhabit.11 Ichnologists characterize sedimentary surface environments according to consistency of the ground and
have developed a classification of surface types in
terms of stiffness:
soupgroundwater-saturated mudrocks

softgroundmuddy sediment with some
dewatering
loosegroundsandy
stiffgroundstabilized
firmgrounddewatered and compacted
hardgroundlithified.
Only with adequate stiffness can these media
support traces that can be preserved in the fossil
record. Therefore, ichnofossils are usually discernable only in stiffground and firmground surfaces (although backfilled and lined burrows may
be discernible in softgrounds); hardground surfaces are too hard for most organisms to penetrate. Firmgrounds in marine environments may
be attractive to animal colonization. Their firmness offers the animal protection; they tend to
occur in areas of slow sediment accumulation,
and the firm sediment does not require constant
burrow maintenance. However, for a surface to be
both firm and populated, it must have been
deposited, dewatered and somewhat compacted
before serving as a habitat. In clastic settings,
these requirements often are associated with
erosionally exhumed substrates, and the resulting surfaces correspond to erosional discontinuities.12 Identifying erosional discontinuities is
important because they form the bounding surfaces of sedimentary sequences.
Geologists have incorporated ichnological
information in sequence stratigraphic studies in
a wide range of environments, including Jurassic
marine sequences of the North Sea, Permian fluvio-lacustrine facies of Argentina, Jurassic carbonates in Saudi Arabia and Cretaceous marine
sequences in Canada.13 Most such studies make
use of ichnofossils identified in outcrops and
cores, but visual indications of bioturbation may
come from well logs.
Imaging Ichnofossils
If burrows and other traces are large enough and
filled with material that has resistivity of sufficient contrast to that of the host rock, they may
appear in borehole resistivity images. Examples
of resistivity images from wells in clastic formations in the Orinoco heavy oil belt in Venezuela
show a range of features that may be interpreted
as evidence of bioturbation.

Oilfield Review

There, an operating company is developing a


heavy oil field with multiple horizontal wells and
wants to place the wells in the best reservoir
sands. To this end, the operator commissioned an
integrated study that combined lithostratigraphic, biostratigraphic, sedimentological and
petrophysical analyses of cores and log data in
the four main reservoir units to create a depositional model. The model helped geologists identify the locations and orientations of stacked
channel sands and plan development wells with
increased confidence.
In several cases, burrows in low-resistivity,
shaly intervals were filled with resistive sediment.
An FMI fullbore formation microimager log from
one of the deeper formations revealed a low-resistivity layer with a large, U-shaped burrow filled
with resistive material (previous page, top). This
ichnofossil is typically associated with low-energy
shoreface or sandy tidal flat environments. In the
same well, a borehole image from a shallower formation showed circular features that could be
interpreted as cross-sectional cuts through horizontally oriented burrows. The high-resistivity features were in a low-resistivity layer near its
interface with an overlying resistive layer (previous page, bottom). Burrows of this type are common in lower shoreface to shelfal environments.
Possible ichnofossils that have the opposite
resistivity contrast can also be seen in FMI images
in this field. In a different well, geologists identified a low-resistivity conical burrow in a layered
interval of higher resistivity (right). Ichnofossils of
this type are vertically oriented, single-entrance
burrows with an opening that expands to create a
funnel shape. They are commonly filled with sediment that is of finer grain than that of the host
layer. These are feeding or dwelling burrows of
deposit feeders and are indicators of lower shoreface to proximal shelf settings.
While identification of these ichnofossils did
not drive the interpretation of the depositional
sequences, it corroborated the analysis of the
lithostratigraphic, biostratigraphic, sedimentological and petrophysical properties derived from
cores and log data, thus reinforcing the integrated interpretation. Geologists were able to
identify maximum flooding surfaces and correlate them between wells in the field and were
also able to extend this interpretation to neighboring fields.

Winter 2014/2015

Depth,
ft

Depth,
ft

X,X04

X,X04

X,X05

X,X05

X,X06

X,X06

X,X07

X,X07

X,X08

X,X08

X,X09

X,X09

X,X10

X,X10

X,X11

X,X11

X,X12

X,X12

X,X13

X,X13

X,X14

X,X14

X,X15

X,X15

X,X16

X,X16

X,X17

X,X17

3 cm

> A low-resistivity conical feature. An FMI image (left ) from a well in Venezuela exhibits a lowresistivity (dark) conical structure (middle) that resembles the vertical burrow ichnofossil Rosselia
(right ), although the scales are quite different. An Ichnofossil of this type is a vertically oriented
single-entrance burrow that has an opening that expands to create a funnel shape. These burrows
are commonly filled with sediment that is of finer grain than that of the host layer. These are feeding
or dwelling burrows of deposit feeders and are indicators of lower shoreface to full marine settings.
The yellow lines represent formation dip; the blue lines may be flooding surfaces. (Photograph
copyright S. George Pemberton.)

Oilfield Review
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13. Taylor AM and Gawthorpe RL: Application of Sequence
11. Grain size, organic content, local energy and sediment
Bioturbation Fig.
11 and Trace Fossil Analysis to Reservoir
Stratigraphy
cohesiveness are other factors that may influence
Description:
Examples from the Jurassic of the North
colonization patterns.
ORAUT14-BIOT
11

Pemberton SG, MacEachern JA and Saunders T:


Stratigraphic Applications of Substrate-Specific
Ichnofacies: Delineating Discontinuities in the Rock
Record, in McIlroy D (ed): The Application of Ichnology
to Palaeoenvironmental and Stratigraphic Analysis.
London: The Geological Society, Special Publication 228
(2004): 2962.
Taylor and Goldring, reference 7.
12. Pemberton et al, reference 11.

Sea, in Parker JR (ed): Petroleum Geology of Northwest


Europe: Proceedings of the 4th Conference. London:
The Geological Society (1993): 317335.
Buatois and Mngano, reference 5.
Pemberton et al, reference 11.
MacEachern JA, Pemberton SG, Gingras MK, Bann KL
and Dafoe LT: Uses of Trace Fossils in Genetic
Stratigraphy, in Miller W III (ed): Trace Fossils:
Concepts, Problems, Prospects. Amsterdam:
Elsevier (2007): 110134.

53

Over the past few decades, oil company geologists have used trace fossil input mainly in exploration and development efforts such as those in
the Orinoco example. Recently, they have begun
to incorporate this information in productionrelated studies.
Bioturbation Effects on Production
Bioturbation can destroy or enhance permeability. Geologists generally consider bioturbation
detrimental to permeability; biogenic churning
tends to undo grain sorting, and redistribution of
fine clay grains can reduce overall permeability
of layered media. However, evidence in recent

3 cm

> Enhancing permeability. Burrows filled with


coarse-grained sediments create highpermeability channels in fine-grained, lowpermeability host rock. Burrows of this type,
known as Glossifungites, may have population
densities as high as 2,500 burrows/m2
[250burrows/ft2]. (Photograph copyright
S. George Pemberton.)

54

soils and sediments shows that in some cases,


bioturbation enhances porosity and permeability
by creating new pathways for fluid movement.
Porosity and permeability increase when
holes burrowed into a firmground are filled with
contrasting, usually coarse-grained, sediment.14
These ichnofossils can add porosity and permeability to an otherwise low-porosity, impermeable
matrix. If the burrows are alignedmany will be
vertically orientedthe resulting permeability is
anisotropic: greater in the vertical direction than
in any horizontal directions. In some instances,
the burrows constitute the reservoir porosity and
permeability. In others, the burrows may be filled
with material that later becomes impermeable.
In yet other instances, enhanced permeability
lies in a diagenetic zone around the burrow.
Failing to detect or ignoring the presence of
biogenically modified porosity can lead to errors
in estimates of hydrocarbon reserves; if the burrows are filled with high-porosity material,
reserve calculations that do not take them into
account will be too low, and if the burrows are
tight, reserve calculations could be too high.
Identifying and quantifying the effects of
enhanced permeability in reservoir zones are
crucial for successful well completions and accurate production simulations.
Researchers at the University of Alberta in
Edmonton, Canada, have studied the porosity
and permeability effects of bioturbation.15 They
see the greatest effects when burrows in dewatered, firmground substrate are filled with coarsegrained sediment (left). Burrows of this type can
reach areal densities of 2,500burrows/m2
[250burrows/ft2]. The effects on permeability
depend on burrow connectivity, depth of penetration and permeability contrast between matrix
and burrow fill. The permeability-enhanced zone
may be up to 3m [10ft] thick and is generally
limited to areal extents of 1km2 [0.4mi2]. Layers
exhibiting this type of bioturbation have been
recognized in several oil fields.
The Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia, the
worlds largest, is one such example. The oil is
contained in carbonate rocks of the Jurassic
Arab-D Formation. Production logging has
detected thin, superhigh-permeability zones
called super-k zones that contribute a large
proportion of the total flow. In some of the
super-k zones, the permeability appears to be
related to faults and fractures, while in others,
the high permeability is attributed to dolomitization and leaching.16

The University of Alberta geologists examined


cores of one super-k layer and reported the presence of a geologic surface of burrow-enhanced
permeability. They hypothesized that the surface
developed when a firmground, low-porosity
micritic calcite layer was exposed during regional
erosion that occurred during a rise in sea level
(next page). Epifaunal organisms excavated burrows about 1 to 2cm [0.4 to 0.8in.] in diameter
that penetrated up to 2m [7ft] below the surface. Many burrows filled with sucrosic dolomite,
which is more porous and permeable than the
micrite matrix. Flowmeter measurements indicate that in some wells, 70% of the production
comes from this single unit.
Although the high permeability of this layer is
beneficial to oil production, it can cause difficulties when water is drawn into it from the underlying aquifer. The burrows may act as pathways for
some of the 1millionm3 [6millionbbl] of water
produced daily in the Ghawar wells.
In some instances, burrowing may be present
but fail to add effective porosity. One example
of this phenomenon comes from the Natih
Formation of Oman, which was deposited on a
shallow marine carbonate platform in the middle
Cretaceous.17 The E Member of the Natih
Formation is a reservoir of heavy oil in the Al
Ghubar field, and as of 2003 had produced less
than 5% of its estimated oil in place. Original estimates of reserves incorporated neutron and density logbased porosities of 20% to 45%. To
determine the causes of the production underperformance, geologists and engineers scrutinized core and log porosity measurements.
Analysis of thin sections from the various
carbonate rock types penetrated by a 60-m
[200-ft] core revealed five types of porosity,
four of which may be ineffective, meaning they do
not contribute to production. The effective porosity typesolution-enhanced interparticle poros14. Pemberton SG and Gingras MK: Classification and
Characterizations of Biogenically Enhanced
Permeability, AAPG Bulletin 89, no. 11 (November 2005):
14931517.
15. Pemberton and Gingras, reference 14.
16. For more on dolomitization: Al-Awadi M, Clark WJ,
Moore WR, Herron M, Zhang T, Zhao W, Hurley N, Kho D,
Montaron B and Sadooni F: Dolomite: Perspectives on
a Perplexing Mineral, Oilfield Review 21, no. 3
(Autumn 2009): 3245.
17. Smith LB, Eberli GP, Masaferro JL and Al-Dhahab S:
Discrimination of Effective from Ineffective Porosity in
Heterogeneous Cretaceous Carbonates, Al Ghubar Field,
Oman, AAPG Bulletin 87, no. 9 (September 2003):
15091529.

Oilfield Review

> Development of a super-k layer in the Ghawar field, Saudi Arabia. Geologists propose that the superpermeability in the Jurassic Arab-D interval developed
when regionally extensive erosion exposed a low-porosity micritic calcite firmground (A). Crustaceans colonized this firm sediment, creating a dense
network of burrows (B). The burrows filled with detrital sucrosic dolomite (C), which is more porous and permeable than the micritic calcite that contains
the burrows. Oil (gold) flows freely though the resulting super-k layer (D). (Adapted from Pemberton and Gingras, reference 14.)

itycreates effective reservoir intervals in the


grainstone facies that make up 20% of the total
thickness of the Natih E reservoir. In some zones,
leaching of cement has left the grainstones with
carbonate grains held together only by the
viscous oil.
The remaining 80% of the Natih E reservoir
contains packstone and wackestone exhibiting
the other four types of porosity, which are for the
most part ineffective. These rocks have abundant

Winter 2014/2015

0.5- to 2.0-cm [0.2- to 0.8-in.] burrows filled with


partially dolomitized grainstone, creating interparticle porosity. The burrow fillings make up
between 10% and 50% of the rock volume.
However, the burrows are not sufficiently connected to produce significant amounts of oil.
Similarly, the other porosity typesmicroporosity, moldic porosity and intragranular porosity
are not effective in this reservoir. Unfortunately,
the neutron and density porosity logs cannot dis-

tinguish between effective and ineffective porosity, leading to inaccurate calculations of reserves.
To determine if other logs would be more suitable for assessing effective porosity and permeability, the geologists correlated the rock and pore
types identified in the core with other wireline log
responses; they began by matching core gamma
ray responses with well log gamma ray readings.
Of the available well logsgamma ray, resistivity,
sonic, density porosity and neutron porosity

55

only the resistivity logs showed clear correlations


with core plug permeability (below).
The high-permeability oil-stained zones seen
in cores correlate with intervals that exhibit
high values of deep resistivity. These zones also
correspond to separation between medium and
deep resistivity curves, indicating invasion of
drilling fluid into the formation, which occurs
only in permeable units. The resistivity curves
have little or no separation in the burrowed
wackestone layers, indicating low permeability
and ineffective porosity.

The results of the study suggest that because


the grainstones that have interparticle porosity
make up only 20% of the total thickness of the
porous oil-prone interval, the estimate of recoverable oil in place should be decreased by 80%. If
this reduction is taken into account, about 25% of
the recoverable oil in place has been produced,
which the operator considered acceptable for this
carbonate reservoir.

Burrow Porosity and Permeability


in a Gas Field
In carbonate formations, burrows filled with
dolomite can act as primary or secondary conduits for fluid movement. Flow behavior in burrowed formations depends on the amount of
bioturbation, the connectivity of burrows and the
contrast in porosity and permeability between
the dolomite fill and the carbonate matrix.
Bioturbated carbonate mudstones make up
part of the producing interval in the Pine Creek
gas field of Alberta, Canada. From depths exceed-

Gamma Ray

Density Porosity

Neutron Porosity

Sonic Porosity

Plug Porosity

Plug Permeability

gAPI
25
50

%
50 40 30 20 10 0

%
50 40 30 20 10 0

%
50 40 30 20 10 0

%
50 40 30 20 10 0

mD

75

0.1

10,000

Deep Resistivity
0.1

ohm.m

10,000

Deep Resistivity
Minus Medium
Resistivity
0.1

ohm.m

10,000

Reservoir
top

Oil/water
contact

> Well logs and core data from the E Member of the Natih Formation, Al Ghubar field, Oman. Reservoir underperformance led geologists to reevaluate log
and core measurements to determine the best indicators of effective porosity and permeability. Only the logs of deep resistivity (Track 7) and of the
difference between medium and deep resistivity (Track 8) showed clear correlations with core plug permeability (Track 6). High-permeability zones are
shown by yellow shading. (Adapted from Smith et al, reference 17.)

56

Oilfield Review

0 to 1 mD
1 to 10 mD
10 to 100 mD
> 100 mD

2 cm

1 cm

1 cm

> Spot permeametry and microCT analysis of samples from the Wabamun Group in Alberta, Canada. In this formation,
permeability is increased where burrows are associated with localized bioturbation. A core sample (top left ) exhibits dolomiteassociated trace fossils (light brown) and a nondolomitized lime mudstone matrix (light gray). Results of spot permeametry
measurements (top middle) can be contoured to produce a permeability map (top right ). The highest permeability values are up to
340 mD and correspond to the dolomitized trace fossils. MicroCT scans in 3D (bottom, top row) at 34-m resolution reveal mineral
phases in five cross sections of a core sample. The dolomite-filled burrows are represented as shades of blue, lime mudstone
matrix as light gray and vugs as unfilled holes (demarcated by black arrows). The 2D cross-sectional images at the bottom were
used to constrain the attenuation phases within the core sample. In these images, the dolomite-filled burrows appear in light
gray, limestone matrix in dark gray and vugs in black.

ing 3,000m [10,000ft], the field has produced


more than 550MMcf [15.6millionm3] of gas.
In a study using slabbed core samples from
11wells in the field, University of Alberta geologists examined the sedimentological, ichnological and petrophysical properties of facies in the
Wabamun Groupthe primary reservoir facies in
the Pine Creek field.18 They also imaged the core

Winter 2014/2015

samples using Oilfield


X-ray microcomputed
tomograReview
phy (microCT) AUTUMN
and helical14
computed tomography
Bioturbation
to obtain 2D and
3D images Fig.
and15
performed spot
ORAUT14-BIOT 15
permeability tests to analyze permeability distributions in the samples.
In the four reservoir facies, the amount of
burrow-associated dolomite ranged from 0% to
about 80% to 100%. MicroCT scans of a core from

the most heavily bioturbated facies revealed the


complexity of the burrow distribution (above).
The dolomitized burrows represent a mixture of
18. Baniak GM, Gingras MK and Pemberton SG: Reservoir
Characterization of Burrow-Associated Dolomites in the
Upper Devonian Wabamun Group, Pine Creek Gas Field,
Central Alberta, Canada, Marine and Petroleum
Geology 48 (December 2013): 275292.

57

Pine Creek Well

Monthly gas production, Mcf

Production from burrows

Diffusion from matrix into burrows

100

10

1965

1970

1975

1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

Year

> Production history in an ichnofossil-hosted tight gas reservoir. Monthly gas production from a well in the Pine
Creek field shows early production from gas-filled burrows in the first 15 or 20 years. Gas production then declines
because the gas must diffuse from the low-permeability matrix into the burrows to be produced.

tubular structures ranging in diameter from


millimeters to centimeters. The difference in
lithology between the burrows and the nondolomitized limestone mud matrix makes the burrows easy to image.
Spot-permeability tests quantified the permeability of the cores on a 0.5-cm [0.2-in.] grid.
Permeability of the matrix is less than 1mD,
whereas permeability of the dolomitized burrows
is greater than 100mD.
The large contrast in permeability between
burrows and matrix gives rise to a distinctive production history for wells in the field (above). For
the first 15 years in the life of a well, the formation produces gas from the burrows. After the
easy gas has been extracted, the declining production is interpreted to be of gas that has diffused from the matrix into the burrows. Geologists
studying this field have coined a new term
ichnofossil-hosted tight gasto describe this
burrow-matrix association.
Burrow Significance
Biologic disturbance of sediments can have
many effects, for better or worse, on reservoirs.
By recognizing burrows and other trace fossils,
ichnologists gain knowledge they can incorporate with other information to infer a formations
19. Pemberton and Gingras, reference 14.
20. Aplin AC and Macquaker JHS: Mudstone Diversity:
Origin and Implications for Source, Seal, and Reservoir
Properties in Petroleum Systems, AAPG Bulletin 95,
no. 12 (December 2011): 20312059.

58

depositional environment and hydrocarbon


potential. This information helps them guide
exploration activities.
Bioturbation alters the physical properties of
a rock as it is being formed. The process can
increase or decrease porosity and permeability
and can modify permeability anisotropy, sometimes to a significant degree. Quantifying these
effects and including them in reservoir simulation models can improve production predictions
and enhanced oil recovery operations.
Bioturbation can have the same effects on
fine-grained layers as it has on reservoir rocks.
Shales and mudstones may lose their capability
to act as reservoir seals if bioturbation causes a
large increase in vertical permeability. In the
Sirasun and Terang gas fields in Indonesia, the
marly caprock was found to have burrows that
were filled with hollow foraminifera. The lowOilfield Review
permeability formation had certifiable reserves
AUTUMN 14
3
of 500 Bioturbation
Bcf [14 billion
Fig.m16] of gas. The burrows
causedORAUT14-BIOT
it to acquire reservoir
characteristics,
16
making for a leaky seal.19
Recent activity in gas- and oil-prone mudstone and shale formationscalled unconventional reservoirs because they act as both source
rock and reservoirmay benefit from more
studies of bioturbation. Evidence of bioturbation
has been documented in several low-permeability, fine-grained rocks.20 Ichnofossils have been
identified in the Woodford Formation and the
Lower Marcellus Shale in the US and in the

Bakken Shale and the Montney Shale in Canada.


As in the example from the Pine Creek field,
extensive zones of trace fossils in these formations may improve gas storativity and the connectivity of porosity with induced fractures.
Bioturbation may also affect rock mechanical
properties, potentially influencing the outcome
of hydraulic fracturing.
In a manner of speaking, many human activities qualify as bioturbation. The wells we drill
and the tunnels we bore are on scales far surpassing those of burrows by sea creatures, but
we can still learn from the effects of their smallscale efforts. By recognizing bioturbation and
appreciating its consequences, geoscientists
are likely to improve their understanding of reservoirs and do a better job recovering hydro
carbon resources.
LS

Oilfield Review