A GEOHISTORY OF THE LAKE CHAMPLAIN BASIN by Scott Mardis
Lake Champlain is the sixth largest lake in the United States and is bordered by the states of Vermont and New York and the Canadian province of Quebec.1,2 It is 126 miles long and 400 ft. deep, but has an average depth of 64 ft..3The lake can be divided into 5 distinct basins, each with it's own unique ecology.4It supports 83 different fish species ,as well as a diverse array of tetrapods.2The entire drainage system of Lake Champlain is referred to as the Champlain Basin.2Lake Champlain is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by river systems at both it's Northern and Southern ends, but access is restricted by the presence of dams and canal systems on the connecting rivers.5Much of the geological history of the Champlain Basin was obliterated by glacier scouring
during the Wisconsin glaciations (110,000-10,000 years ago or Kya) 4 but the missing chapters may be inferred by the geology of surrounding regions. The pre-glacial geology of the Champlain Basin can best be understood using John Tuzo Wilson's tectonic plate model representing 3 orogenies or mountain building episodes.6,7Late Proterozoic era continental rifting(650 million years ago or Mya) resulted in the opening of the Iapetus or proto-Atlantic Ocean, subsequently closed during the Paleozoic era (542-251 Mya) in stages by subduction processes. The first stages of closing during the Ordovician period (488-440 Mya) resulted in the Taconic mountain-building orogeny. Most of the Iapetus Ocean would be closed during the Devonian period (416-359 Mya) Acadian orogeny, but some parts would persist until final closure during the Carboniferous-Permian period (359-251 Mya) Alleghanian orogeny. Much later continental rifting during the Mesozoic era (251-65 Mya) led to the opening of the present day Atlantic Ocean .6,7
In late Ordovician times (440 Mya),the North American continental margin was being subducted down a trench, causing not only loss of shallow marine sedimentary depositional environments but build up and accretion of deformed sediments near the trench.8As time progressed, the island arc to the east of the continental margin was drawn westward, as was a large land mass that had built up from the deformed sediments near the trench.8Eventually,due to the subduction, oceanic crust from the east was actually driven over the top of the continental margin, resulting in geological oddities such as the Champlain Thrust fault .8At Lone Rock Point, Burlington, Vt., Cambrian oceanic crust sits on top of younger Ordovician continental sediments .8The Champlain Thrust Fault extends from Canada south to the Catskill plateau in New York state,a distance of approximately 199 miles.9The Champlain Thrust Fault and it's extensions, such as the Cabot Fault, follow the exact trajectory north from Lake George, through the middle of Lake Champlain, through the Richelieu River, eastward through the St. Lawrence River directly out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence .10It is not an unreasonable assumption that this fault system has defined drainage patterns in this region for the last 440 million years. The Champlain Valley itself was formed at this time, when blocks of land between the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondack Mountains of New York dropped down .2
In late Permian times (251 Mya),the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea began as the North American and European/African plates began to rift apart .11The rifting apart of these continental plates proceeded sequentially from south to north, reversing the docking pattern seen in the Alleghanian orogeny, and spanned the entire Mesozoic era (251-65 Mya).11Geologic evidence of these processes can be found throughout New England in the form of igneous intrusions( related to intraplate magmatism ) and much block faulting, as well .6, 11The Mesozoic igneous rocks of New England have been classified into four distinct provinces, based on differences in their ages, physical aspects and petrology .11
One Mesozoic igneous province of New England is the New England-Quebec province.11The Champlain Basin sits within the New England-Quebec province and contains many early Cretaceous period (135-115 Mya) dikes and faults .7, 11One notable Mesozoic igneous feature of the Champlain Basin is Barber Hill,a large syenitic dome, located in Charlotte, Vt. .11, 12It has been suggested that the Champlain Basin may
have been close to the continental margin during this time period (135-115 Mya).12, 13The presence of the mineral monchiquite, associated with oceanic crust, in lamprophyre dikes in Williston, Vt. may reinforce this idea .7It has been speculated that Mesozoic rifting in the Champlain Basin, in addition to creating new faults, may have reactivated older faults underneath Lakes Champlain and Lake George (south of Lake Champlain), significantly deepening the lake basins through block faulting.14 By this time period (135-115 Mya), tectonic rifting had created the Atlantic Ocean between the separating continental plates.11Inhabiting this early Atlantic Ocean were large, fish-eating marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs, pliosaurs and the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs.15There is geologic evidence that some plesiosaurs would occasionally enter freshwater environments.16There is the distinct possibility that a large body of water with marine connections could have existed in the Champlain Basin at that time, as it is known that a version of the Hudson River, which connects to the southern end of Lake Champlain, existed by early Jurassic times (200
Mya).17In addition, plesiosaur fossils have been found in New Jersey, indicating their presence in the vicinity of the mouth of the Hudson River.18If a large body of water with marine connections through the Hudson River existed in the Champlain Basin during the Cretaceous period (146-65 Mya), it is possible it could have occasionally been visited by those remarkable fossil animals, the plesiosaurs.
Though the direct ancestry of the fishes that currently inhabit Lake Champlain can only be traced back to the post-glacial period of 13.5 Kya5, some of these fishes may in fact have a deeper regional history. The lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens),the long nose gar (Lepisosteus osseus) and the bowfin (Amia calva) are all representative of Mesozoic forms.19, 20Paleontological and paleogeographical evidence suggests that the Champlain Basin was in the geographic ranges of Mesozoic forms of all three of these fishes.21, 22It is not unreasonable to speculate that representatives of these forms were in the Champlain Basin during the Cretaceous period (146-65 Mya) and pre-glacial Cenozoic era(65-3 Mya). During the glacial periods (3 Mya-13.5 Kya), they would have been forced into glacial refugia beyond the glaciers' margins and reinvaded their former ranges during the interglacials, as did many other fishes that inhabit Lake Champlain today.20,21,23 In support of this idea, the authors can point to the cases of the mysid Mysis relicta and the amphipod Pontoporeia affinis.24Both of these freshwater invertebrates were once thought to have been isolated from their marine ancestors only after the Wisconsin glaciation (10 Kya), but molecular and morphological studies revealed that they had diverged from their marine ancestors millions of years before the last glaciations.24
The only fossil evidence to be found in the Champlain Basin that fills in the gap between the early Cretaceous period (135-115 Mya) and the post-Wisconsin glacial period (13.5-10 Kya) are the early Miocene (20 Mya) plant fossils at Brandon, Vt..8,25These fossils are preserved in brown lignite coal associated with kaolinite clay deposits.25There is a two layer depositional sequence at Brandon, with land plants within the lignite overlain by a silt layer containing aquatic phytoplankton believed to be deposited very shortly after the lignite fossils.26No vertebrate fossils associated with the Brandon lignite fossils have yet been found.27Within the silt layer is the dinoflagellate Saeptodinium hansonianum.26, 28Not only is this aquatic phytoplankton believed to be a transitional form between marine dinoflagellates of the Mesozoic era (251-65 Mya) and modern freshwater dinoflagellates, it and it's close relations are often associated with brackish water environments.26, 28This dinoflagellate conceivably could have reached Brandon by a pre-glacial version of Otter Creek (a large
tributary of Lake Champlain that reaches Brandon today), mentioned by Vermont state naturalist Charles Johnson.19This suggests the presence of an early Miocene (20 Mya) version of Lake Champlain with marine connections. The Brandon flora indicate that the region at that time had a much warmer climate than today, comparable to the Gulf coast of the United States.29 Remarkably, much of the geographical ranges of both living and fossil representatives of much of the Brandon flora overlap the geographic distribution of living and fossil " river dolphins ". River dolphins are an artificial grouping of freshwater-adapted, convergently -evolved, moderate-sized toothed whales representing largely extinct lineages from 50 to 20 million years old.30,31,32The better known forms inhabit the Yangtze, Ganges and Amazon river systems.30,31,32The Brandon fossil plant family Lardizabalaceae is currently distributed along the Yangtze River (China) and close to the Ganges River (India).29The Brandon fossil plant
genus Turpinia is currently found around the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers in northwestern South America.33The Brandon fossil plant family Illiciaceae is currently found along the Yangtze River and near the Brahmaputra River of India, also inhabited by river dolphins.31,34Another contemporaneous early Miocene (20 Mya) flora with much of the same genera as Brandon is the Calvert Formation of Delaware.27,35,36,37Also found in the early Miocene deposits of the Calvert Formation of Delaware are bones of the extinct North American platanistid river dolphin Zarhachis flagellator (though whether this species had yet made the transition to freshwater remains unclear).31, 32, 38The remarkable correlation between the geographic distributions of Brandon flora and river dolphins and the occurrence of river dolphin fossils associated with a contemporaneous early Miocene flora with much of the same genera as Brandon suggests the possibility of the presence of river dolphins in the Champlain Basin during the early Miocene.
Though Miocene (23-5 Mya) temperatures in the Champlain Basin were tropical, climates would grow progressively cooler through the Pliocene period (5 -1 Mya) until a sharp cooling in the mid- Pliocene (3 Mya).27This set the stage for the so-called "Ice Age", the series of glaciations and interglacials between 3 Mya and 10 Kya that extended into the Pleistocene period (1 Mya-10 Kya).19Glacial evidence from New Jersey suggests that New England was glaciated at around 850 Kya and again between 180-160 Kya.39Temperatures during the interglacials may have exceeded modern temperatures in New England.40There is evidence that, during the interglacials, large bodies of freshwater from glacial melting and marine waters from rising sea levels inundated parts of New England.39, 41Isostatic crustal depression from the weight of the ice sheets expedited these flooding scenarios.1During the heights of glaciation, fishes and other aquatic animals froze to death, were driven into the sea or driven into freshwater glacial refuges beyond the glaciers' margin.21,23
At 110 Kya, the most recent glaciation, the Wisconsin glaciation, began.39Most of New England and adjacent Canada were buried under mile thick sheets of ice as far south as Long Island, New York.42As the glacier in the Champlain Basin moved southward on it's initial advance, it significantly deepened the basin through erosion and destroyed most of the Basin's geologic record down to Ordovician period (488-440 Mya) sediments, as well as the geologic record of the previous glaciations.4 By 17 Kya, the process began to reverse itself as the glaciers in New England retreated northward and temperatures began to rise, leaving massive amounts of meltwater along the ice margin.40By 13.5 Kya, numerous large glacial lakes existed in the region of the Champlain Basin.1,5Glacial Lake Vermont occupied the Champlain Basin itself.40It was substantially deeper than modern Lake Champlain, having a maximum depth of 900 ft., but was a very muddy lake of low productivity.42However,the first wave of fishes to reinvade Lake Champlain arrived during this period.20To the west of Lake Vermont, where the Great Lakes Ontario and Erie are now, was Glacial Lake Iroquois.43To the
east of Lake Vermont was Glacial Lake Memphemagog.44
By 12.6 Kya,the ice margin had retreated to the point that all three of these lakes were combined into one gigantic glacial lake known as Glacial Lake Candona, named after a diagnostic inhabitant, the freshwater ostracod crustacean Candona subtriangulata. Lake Candona covered not only the Champlain Basin, but large portions of southern Quebec and Ontario and the northeastern parts of Vermont north to the St. Lawrence River.44 Separating the northeastern border of Lake Candona from the marine waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence was a large ice dam at Warwick, Quebec.42At about 12.5 Kya, the ice dam at Warwick failed and the waters of Lake Candona flooded into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, dropping the water level some 300 ft. in a matter of days.42Shortly thereafter,, marine waters from the Gulf of St. Lawrence occupied most of the former space once occupied by Lake Candona and created the Champlain Sea.40
The picture above shows a recreation of the contours of the Champlain Sea and adjacent contemporary glacial lakes at 11.5 Kya. As depicted above, the Champlain Basin was only a small fiord in a sea that was mostly located in southern Quebec and Ontario.1The St. Lawrence River east of Warwick, Quebec to the Gulf of St. Lawrence is referred to as the Goldthwait Sea, technically a separate body of water.45At it's western margins, the Champlain Sea was connected to the large Glacial Lake Algonquin, which occupied the space of the modern day Great Lakes.1Lake Algonquin was in turn connected to Glacial Lake Agassiz, the largest glacial lake ever documented.1, 46Based upon the above configuration, it is conceivable that a marine animal could have traveled from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Lake Agassiz in North Dakota. And marine animals were certainly inhabiting the Champlain Sea. There are freshwater adapted marine fishes such as rainbow smelt and Atlantic salmon living in present day Lake Champlain that are relicts from the Champlain Sea episode.20In addition, there are abundant Champlain Sea age fossils of multiple whale species and multiple pinniped species including walrus.40,47,48
The most common Champlain Sea marine mammal fossil is the Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas).47No less than 21 specimens have been found in Champlain Sea deposits (see the above map),including one from Charlotte, Vt., on the shores of Lake Champlain, in 1849.49,50 Today, there is a population of Belugas that inhabit the St.Lawrence River estuary that may be Champlain Sea relicts.49Belugas are moderate-sized, toothed cetaceans with a white coloration, prominent and flexible neck, no dorsal fin and whose nearest relative is the Narwhal (Monodon monoceras).49In addition, they have a marked tolerance for freshwater conditions.50The oldest known Beluga is Denebola megacephala from the late Miocene (6-8 Mya) of Mexico.51Evidently, the ancestral Belugas migrated around South America, through a Pliocene seaway that
|Beluga fossil find locations marked|
The Champlain Sea episode is usually divided into two marine phases, each named after a predominant bivalve mollusc diagnostic of each phase.40The "Hiatella arctica" phase lasted from about 12.5 Kya to 11 Kya, reflecting a subarctic climate with deep,cold water and a salinity of about 23-28%.40, 47The "Mya arenaria" phase lasted from 11 Kya to 9.8 Kya and represented more boreal conditions, with warmer water and a saline content as low as 5%.40,47The reduced salinity of the waters of the Champlain Sea may be directly attributable to outburst flooding from Glacial Lake Agassiz.1It has been suggested that the larger whale species inhabited the Champlain Sea during the "Hiatella arctica" phase and that the Beluga whales were common during the "Mya arenaria" phase.47It is thought that Paleoindians were hunting Champlain Sea marine mammals, based on the correlation of the locations of fluted point finds with beach deposits associated with the Champlain Sea coastlines.52
The final marine phase of the Champlain Sea came to an end 9.8 Kya when differential uplift in the region of Quebec City prevented marine waters from entering the St. Lawrence lowlands and the Champlain Basin.40, 42This transitional phase between the Champlain Sea and Lake Champlain is called the "Lampsilis Lake" phase, due to the abundance of the freshwater bivalve Lampsilis radiata siliquoidea.40 Lower water levels and increased sedimentation that outpaced the rate of erosion caused the downcutting of "Lampsilis Lake" into the Ottowa River and Lake Champlain by 7 Kya.40,42It is thought that a third wave of invading fishes arrived during this transitional period.20
One legacy of the Champlain Sea is that isolated pockets of saline Champlain Sea water can still be found in aquifers of the St. Lawrence lowlands.53It is possible that other legacies of the Champlain Sea have thus far eluded us.
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28.Batten, David J. et al. 1999. " Palaeoenvironmental Significance of a Monospecific Assemblage of Dinoflagellate Cysts from the Miocene Clarkia Beds, Idaho, U.S.A. ", Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 153, pg. 161- 177 29. Tiffney, Bruce H. 1993. " Fruits and Seeds of the Brandon Lignite. VII. Sargentodoxa ( Sargentodoxaceae ) ", American Journal of Botany, 80 ( 5 ), pg. 517- 523 30.Cassens, Insa et al. 2000. " Independent Adaptation to Riverine Habitats Allowed Survival of Ancient Cetacean Lineages ", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., 97, pg. 11343- 11347 31.Hamilton, Healy et al. 2001. " Evolution of River Dolphins ", Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 268, pg. 549- 558 32.Geisler, Jonathan H. et al. 2011. " A supermatrix analysis of genomic, morphological and paleontological data from crown Cetacea ", BMC Evolutionary Biology, 11, 112 33.Tiffney, Bruce H. 1979. " Fruits and Seeds of the Brandon Lignite. III. Turpinia ( Staphyleaceae ) ", Brittonia, 31 ( 1 ), pg. 39-51 34.Tiffney, Bruce H. and Barghoorn, Elso S. 1979. " Flora of the Brandon Lignite. IV. Illiciaceae ", American Journal of Botany, 66 ( 3 ), pg. 321- 329 35.Groot, J.J. 1992. " Plant Microfossils of the Calvert Formation of Delaware ", Delaware Geological Survey Report of Investigations, 50, pg. 1- 6 36.Tiffney, Bruce H. 1994. " Re- Evaluation of the Age of the Brandon Lignite ( Vermont, U.S.A. ) Based on Plant Megafossils ", Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 82 ( 3- 4 ), pg. 299- 315 37.Traverse, Alfred 1994. " Palynofloral Geochronology of the Brandon Lignite of Vermont, U.S.A. ", Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 82 ( 3- 4 ), pg. 265- 297 38.Bohaska, David J. 1998. " Marine Mammals of the lower Miocene Pollack Farm Site, Delaware " in Benson, R. N. ( editor ), Geology and Paleontology of the lower Miocene Pollack Farm Site, Delaware: Delaware Geological Survey Publication No. 21, pg. 179- 191 39.Ridge, John C. 2004. " The Quaternary Glaciation of Western New England with Correlations to Surrounding Areas " in Ehlers, J. and Gibbard, P.L. ( editors ), Quaternary Glaciations: Extent and Chronology.
Part II: North America, Elsevier, Boston, pg. 169- 199 40.Milner, Andrew and Ryan, Michael 2006. Late Pleistocene Vertebrates Along the Northwestern Margin of the Champlain Sea. Fieldtrip Guidebook for 66th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. 43 pg. 41.Sirkin, Les 1996. Western Long Island Geology. Watch Hill: The Book and Tackle Shop Publishers 42.Wright, Steven F. 2003. Glacial Geology of the Burlington and Colchester 7.5- minute Quadrangles, Northern Vermont. Vermont Geological Survey, Waterbury, Vermont 43.Donnelly, Jeffrey P. et al. 2005. " Catastrophic Meltwater Discharge Down the Hudson Valley: A Potential Trigger for the Intra- Allerod Cold Period ", Geology, 33 ( 2 ), pg. 89- 92 44.Parent, Michel and Occhietti, Serge 1999. " Late Wisconsinan Deglaciation and Glacial Lake Development in the Appalachians of Southeastern Quebec ", Geographie Physique et Quaternaire, 53 ( 1 ), pg. 117- 135 45.Occhietti, Serge et al. 2001. " Paleoenvironments de la Mer de Champlain dans la Region de Quebec, Entre 11, 300 et 9750 BP: Le Site de St. Nicholas ", Geographie Physique et Quaternaire, 55 ( 1 ), pg. 23- 46 46.Teller, J.T. et al. 2002. " Freshwater Outbursts to the Oceans from Glacial Lake Agassiz and Their Role in Climate Change During the Last Deglaciation ", Quaternary Science Reviews, 21, pg. 879- 887 47.Harington, C.R. 1977. " Marine Mammals of the Champlain Sea and the Great Lakes ", Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 288, pg. 508- 537 48.Harington, C.R. 1988. " Marine Mammals of the Champlain Sea and the Problem of Whales in Michigan „, in Gadd, N.R. ( editor ), The Late Quaternary Development of the Champlain Sea Basin: Geological Association of Canada, Special Paper 35, pg. 225- 240 49.Harington, C.R. et al. 2006. " Felix: A Late Pleistocene White Whale ( Delphinapterus leucas ) Skeleton from Champlain Sea Deposits at St. Felix- de- Valois, Quebec", Geographie Physique et Quaternaire, 60 ( 2 ), pg. 183- 198 50.Howe, Jeff 1993. The Charlotte Whale. Perkins Museum of Geology, University of Vermont. 5 pg. 51.Lambert, Olivier and Gigase, Pierre 2007. " A monodontid cetacean from the early Pliocene of the
North Sea ", Bulletin de l‟Institute royal des Sciences naturelles de Belgique, Sciences de la Terre, 77, pg. 197- 210 52.Loring, Steven 1980. " Paleo- Indian Hunters and the Champlain Sea: A Presumed Association ", Man in the Northeast, 19, pg. 15- 41 53.Cloutier, Vincent et al. 2010. " Desalination of a Sedimentary Rock Aquifer System Invaded by Pleistocene Champlain Sea and Processes Controlling Ground Water Geochemistry ", Environ. Earth Sci., 59, pg. 977- 994