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Luminescence ages and new interpretations of the timing and deposition of Quaternary sediments at Natural Trap Cave, Wyoming

March 1, 2022

Natural Trap Cave, located in the Big Horn Mountains of north-central Wyoming, has a history of trapping and preserving a range of North American fauna that plummeted into the deep vertical entrance. These animal remains were buried and preserved within sediments of the main chamber and, in turn, have helped elucidate the procession of faunal dynamics during the latest glacial cycle. The cave location, south of the Laurentide and Cordilleran Ice Sheets, and proximal to Yellowstone, is at an ideal geographical juncture to provide insights to ecological changes in North America. The sediments that the animals are buried in inform us about transport and deposition both inside and outside of the cave that relate to catchment dynamics. We report on a series of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) ages derived from samples obtained within the cave during excavation work in 2014 and in 2018. We also examine chronology produced by argon, tephrochronology, fission track, and luminescence techniques that have been used for understanding the infilling of the cave. The cave sediment ages and in situ measured gamma spectroscopy as measured in this study helped resolve an improved chronological age model when combined with previous data.

The suite of OSL ages is interpreted through the stratigraphic relationships (and vertebrates contained within) which requires the use of an adequate age model; we use either the central age model or minimum age model where appropriate and with justification. Lowest sediments are dated to ∼150 ka with a hiatus at ∼130 to 52 ka. Above this, sediment deposition and entrainment of paleontological materials are representative of Pleistocene and early Holocene times, between 37 ± 6 ka and 7.6 ± 0.5 ka. The stratigraphic architecture suggests that deposition of materials into the cave is episodic and rapid, followed by quiescent periods where hydrologic scour, heavy overland flow, or possibly a cryo-hydrologic process may have altered unit relationships. Thus, the complementary geochronometers and the characteristics of quartz versus feldspar luminescence signals improve temporal interpretations of these complex deposits. This adapted understanding of mixing also sets the stage for future work with the aim to improve our understanding of ages and sources for ash units within these cave deposits. The three ash units recognized in the cave may represent an in-situ reworking of the same ash or may be representative of previously undocumented eruptions from the Yellowstone Caldera.

Publication Year 2023
Title Luminescence ages and new interpretations of the timing and deposition of Quaternary sediments at Natural Trap Cave, Wyoming
DOI 10.1016/j.quaint.2022.01.005
Authors Shannon A. Mahan, John R. Wood, Dave M Lovelace, Juan Laden, Jenny McGuire, Julie Meachen
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Quaternary International
Index ID 70236841
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center