Priabonian, late Eocene chronostratigraphy, depositional environment, and paleosol-trace fossil associations, Pipestone Springs, southwest Montana, USA

Ischyromys articulated skeleton from late Eocene strata, Pipestone locality, southwest Montana.

Finally – the work done by myself and my co-authors, Don Lofgren, Steve Hasiotis, and Bill McIntosh, is published in the new issue of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 67 (1): 5–20. Our work combines chronostratigraphy with depositional environment interpretations and paleosol-trace fossil associations for a new view of a well-known Eocene vertebrate locality in southwest Montana. We had fun and learned much from integrating various aspects of Pipestone’s Eocene geology, vertebrate paleontology, ichnofossils, and radioisotopic age constraints to better understand this amazing locality.

Here’s the abstract:

Sanidine 40Ar/39Ar ages of lapilli tuffs and the mammalian fauna of Pipestone Springs strata provide a high-resolution chronostratigraphy for upper Eocene (Priabonian) rock units in southwestern Montana. Two felsic lapilli tuffs with weighted-mean 40Ar/39Ar single crystal sanidine ages of 37.50±0.02 Ma and 36.00±0.20 Ma both fall within the
Priabonian, late Eocene. These tuffs occur within the basal to upper part of the 55 m of exposed Pipestone Springs strata. The uppermost 15 m yield a diverse and abundant assemblage of mostly small-bodied middle Chadronian (Priabonian, late Eocene) mammals. The older lapilli tuff is an ashfall tuff, whereas the younger lapilli tuff exhibits minor aeolian reworking. The new 40Ar/39Ar age constraints significantly increase the age range of Pipestone Springs strata to include uppermost Duchesnean–lowermost Chadronian (Priabonian, upper Eocene) deposits in addition to its well-known middle
Chadronian vertebrate assemblage. These new 40Ar/39Ar ages combined with its mammalian fauna further support Pipestone Springs strata as age-correlative to the Flagstaff Rim section in central Wyoming, and provide a basis for better determining late Eocene mammalian paleogeography and regional paleolandscapes in the United States Rocky Mountain to Great Plains areas. Loessites intercalated with paleosols dominate Pipestone Springs deposits. The recognition of loessites comprising these strata is a new depositional interpretation of Pipestone Springs strata, making these loessites some of the oldest known aeolian Eocene strata in the Great Plains–Rocky Mountains region. Pipestone Springs paleosols developed on lapilli tuffs are vertisols. Alfisols and inceptisols, developed from a parent material of volcanic glass mixed
with non-volcanic grains, are the remaining paleosols within the loessite strata. Additionally, a new and important discovery in this project is the recognition that all paleosols are extensively bioturbated, containing trace fossils similar to Rebuffoichnus and newly identified trace fossils resembling Feoichnus, Eatonichnus, Fictovichnus, and Coprinisphaera.

Link to publication pdf: Pipestone_hanneman and others

Tertiary Geology and Paleontology in the Gravelly Range, Southwestern Montana

Lion Mountain in the Gravelly Range of southwestern Montana. This area is federal land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

A part of my recent geological field work includes working on high elevation Tertiary strata in the Gravelly Range, southwestern Montana. The Gravelly Range is located in southwest Montana, about 10 miles southwest of Ennis, Montana. For some background on this area and what my field work is about, see an older blog that I posted at Geopostings.

So – now that one field season is done and field data compiled, both my co-worker, Don Lofgren and myself have interpreted some of our data. We recently outlined our work at the Geological Society of America’s (GSA) Rocky Mountain section meeting in Calgary. Alberta. The abstract from our session is given below as well as the poster itself in both a jpeg format and as a link to our  GSA presentation.

“Tertiary strata exposed in four high elevation areas in the south-central
Gravelly Range yield significant assemblages of Late Eocene to Oligocene
mammals. The thickest stratigraphic sections of Tertiary strata are in the
Lion Mountain-Black Butte area. The Lion Mountain section age is based
primarily on American Museum of Natural History collections; the lower
part of this section is Duchesnean-Chadronian (39-33 Ma) and the
uppermost beds are Whitneyan (32-31 Ma). Age of the basal part of the
Black Butte section is Duchesnean-Chadronian based on Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology collections. Recent collections that include Miohippus indicate a probable Orellan age for uppermost exposures. The Tepee Mountain section is notable for abundant brontothere remains and is probably Duchesnean-Chadronian (approx. 39-33 Ma). The Rapamys site is the oldest vertebrate locality and is late Uintan to early Duchesnean (42-38 Ma) based on recently recovered specimens of RapamysProtoreodon, and Lycophocyon.

The Tertiary strata in this part of the Gravelly Range include fluvial, aeolian, and tufa deposits that are most likely mainly associated with localized Oligocene volcanism. The Lion Mountain section is about 270 meters in thickness; the lower half of the section is largely aeolian, with fluvial units comprising much of the upper section. Based upon age data, the 140 meter Black Butte section correlates to the lower 50-70 meters of the Lion Mountain section. The basal 20 meters of the Black Butte section contain some fluvial features, but much of the remaining section is largely aeolian in origin. Paleosols and extensive burrowing also occur within the Black Butte section. Stratigraphic section thickness decreases rapidly away from the Black Butte-Lion Mountain area, with section thicknesses of about 20 meters for the largely aeolian Rapamys and Tepee Mountain sections. Tufa deposits are located along the west-central edge of the Gravelly Range where they are associated with previously mapped thrust faults. Leaf imprint assemblages of Eocene-Miocene age are contained within these tufas. Strata previously mapped as Upper Cretaceous-Paleocene Beaverhead Formation are now variously reassigned to the lower Cretaceous Kootenai Formation, southwestern Montana Cenozoic Sequence 2, and diverse Quaternary units.” From: Abstract from Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs. Vol. 49, No. 5 doi: 10.1130/abs/2017RM-293156.

The poster presented at the 2017 Rocky Mountain GSA is available below as a jpeg and at GSA as a pdf.

Cenozoic Sequence Stratigraphy of Southwestern Montana

Much of my research has been focused on Cenozoic sequence stratigraphy of continental basin-fill in southwestern Montana. This approach to the stratigraphy of continental deposits has facilitated correlation of stratigraphic units both within and among the various basins of this area. I recently gave a talk about my work in this area at Montana Tech of the University of Montana. Here’s the You Tube version of my talk:

The Field Season Is Going Strong in Southwestern Montana

My field season is in full swing. I recently spent time with students from the Webb Schools in Claremont, CA, during their annual sojourn to southwestern Montana. We prospected a few Tertiary localities, with the students making some good fossil mammal and fossil invertebrate finds. We were also extremely lucky to have a southwest Montana landowner give us a tour of a buffalo jump that is on his land. The following photos are from our various fossil site and buffalo jump field adventures.


Tertiary fossil snails (about 25 My in age) at one locality captured the interest of students. Once one snail was found, everyone was intent on finding more.

Bob Haseman talks about a buffalo jump in the Toston Valley. He is standing by one of the many tepee rings associated with the jump site.

Bob Haseman talks about a buffalo jump in the Toston Valley of southwestern Montana. He is standing by one of the many tepee rings associated with the jump site. The small boulders on the surface between Bob and the students are part of a tepee ring.

Webb School students hiking up to the "Looking-Out" site associated with the buffalo jump. A eagle catchment area is immediately below the highest point of the "Looking-Out" site.

Webb School students hiked up to the “Looking-Out” site associated with the buffalo jump. A eagle catchment area is immediately below the highest point of the “Looking-Out” site.


The eagle catchment area is a shallow depression where a person would hide beneath brush awaiting the approach of an eagle. A nearby animal carcass would aid the quest to capture a eagle which was then used for its feathers.

Chadronian (about 36 Ma) age rocks yielded a few brontothere teeth and bone fragments.

Chadronian (about 36 My in age) rocks near Three Forks, Montana yielded a few brontothere teeth and bone fragments for the curious students.

Chadronian strata in this area contain brown to reddish, popcorn textured floodplain deposits and whitish-colored fine-sand channel deposits.

Chadronian strata in this area consist of brown to reddish popcorn-textured floodplain deposits that contain paleosols and whitish-colored fine-sand channel deposits.



Earl Douglass and the Tertiary Geology of Southwest Montana’s Madison Bluffs

Most vertebrate paleontologists probably think of the spectacular dinosaur finds near Jensen, Utah, when the name Earl Douglass is mentioned. Douglass’s discovery of a partial Apatosaurus near Jensen in 1909  did spark the beginning of his long career with finding more dinosaur material in what we now know as Dinosaur National Monument. But Douglass began his quest for fossil vertebrates while he was in southwestern Montana – several years before he was summoned by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s director William Jacob Holland to find dinosaurs.

From the spring of 1894 to 1896, Douglass taught at a one-room school in the lower Madison Valley of southwestern Montana. The school house was located in the lower Madison Valley, directly west of the area known as the Madison Bluffs. These bluffs contain strata that range in age from probably as old as Eocene through the late Miocene. The strata are continental units that include alluvial fan to fluvial trunk stream deposits.

The school house near the Madison Bluffs, southwestern Montana, that Earl Douglass taught at from 1894-1896.

The school house near the Madison Bluffs, southwestern Montana, that Earl Douglass taught at from 1894-1896.

The Madison Bluffs consist of Tertiary fluvail/alluvial fan strata of probably Eocene to late Miocene age.

The Madison Bluffs consist of Tertiary fluvial/alluvial fan strata of probably Eocene to late Miocene age. The Madison Buffalo Jump State Park is located at the northwest edge of this photo.

During his tenure at the lower Madison Valley school, Douglass spent much of his spare time exploring the Madison Bluffs. At the beginning of his teaching contract in 1894, he had very little knowledge of vertebrate paleontology and of the area geology. He initially considered the Madison Bluff beds as Cretaceous in age. But when he found a “tooth very much like a Protohippus” (Earl Douglass journal entry on May 12, 1894), Douglass knew that the beds were younger in age. As time passed, he began to find a significant quantity of fossil vertebrate mammal material within the bluff’s deposits. Consequently, he immersed himself into reading about comparative anatomy so he could readily identify the fossil material. Douglass eventually used his collected fossil material for his 1899 Master’s thesis at the University of Montana – ostensibly the first Master’s degree awarded by the University.

horse jaw from douglass madbluff

Douglass kept journals of his time in the lower Madison Valley, and often detailed both the area geology as well as his fossil finds. Alan Tabrum and volunteers from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History have transcribed many of his journal entries from southwestern Montana. I’ve included two portions of journal entries to illustrate his finding of a horse jaw from the bluffs (above diagram) and one of Douglass’s drawings of “Big Round Top” (an area in the bluffs near the one-room school house) as compared to that same area today in a photo that I took about a week ago.


It’s not difficult to understand how Earl Douglass became enthralled with the geology and paleontology of the Madison Bluffs. In addition to the fossil vertebrates, the bluffs contain many other fascinating geological features. Towards the central part of the bluffs (immediately south of the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park), calcic paleosol stacks mark the boundary between most likely Eocene and Miocene strata. The calcic paleosol stacks contain at least two generations of soil profiles (typically minus the A and upper part of the B horizons). Rootlets and burrows are commonly associated with these paleosols.

Volcanic tuffs also occur within the bluff’s strata, which is really handy for those of us who like isotopic age control for southwestern Montana Tertiary deposits. The tuffs could potentially help age constrain the paleosol stacks and sedimentation within the so far non-fossil bearing part of the bluffs. And with the help of the New Mexico Geochronology Lab, a group of us are working on just that aspect of Madison Bluff geology.

Calcic paleosol stacks in the central part of the Madison Bluffs, southwest Montana.

Calcic paleosol stacks in the central part of the Madison Bluffs, southwest Montana.

Roots within the calcic paleosols found at the Madison Bluffs.

Roots within the calcic paleosols found at the Madison Bluffs.

Burrows at the base of a calcic paleosol.

Burrows and roots at the base of a calcic paleosol.

Gray tuff found below calcic paleosol stacks.

Gray tuff found below the calcic paleosol stacks.