Evidence for high organic carbon export to the early Cambrian seafloor

Meng Cheng, Chao Li, Chengsheng Jin, Haiyang Wang, Thomas J. Algeo, Timothy W. Lyons, Feifei Zhang, Ariel Anbar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Oxygenation of the early Cambrian ocean is commonly ascribed to high organic export to the sediment due to the rise of algae and filter-feeding animals, but direct evidence of elevated export fluxes has been lacking to date. Here, we report an integrated proxy dataset (U-Mo isotopes, Fe speciation, and major and trace elements) for lower Cambrian black shales at Yuanjia on the Yangtze Platform (South China). These shales are characterized by high iron speciation ratios and Mo and U enrichments, indicating persistently euxinic water conditions during their deposition, but a broad range of δ98Mo values (−0.10‰ to +1.94‰) implies strongly variable watermass sulfidity. High and variable nutrient element (Cu, Zn, Ni, Cd) enrichments at Yuanjia are consistent with elevated and variable organic productivity and export fluxes from the euphotic zone to the early Cambrian seafloor. The Yuanjia shales also exhibit super-heavy δ238U values (to +0.84‰) that cannot be explained by U reduction in sediment porewaters. We hypothesize that these values record a U reduction process within the water column, where U isotope fractionation can be much larger than in sediment porewaters. Such processes may have operated within a benthic organic flocculent layer at the sediment-water interface, a feature that is characteristic of high productivity systems with anoxic bottom waters. Furthermore, the coupling between δ238U, nutrient elements, and δ98Mo suggests that elevated productivity levels were driven likely by episodic upwelling in early Cambrian oceans, supplying abundant nutrients for productivity and influencing H2S concentrations in the water column. These observations, along with high organic carbon accumulation rates (5600 mg cm−2 kyr−1), are direct evidence of high organic export fluxes to the early Cambrian seafloor, thus providing key support for the hypothesis that enhanced organic export and burial triggered a major atmospheric-oceanic oxygenation event that stimulated the subsequent explosion of Cambrian life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)125-140
Number of pages16
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
StatePublished - Oct 15 2020


  • Cambrian Explosion
  • Flocculent layer
  • Iron speciation
  • Mo isotopes
  • Primary productivity
  • U isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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