Evolution of the Precambrian Rocks of Yellowstone National Park and Surrounding Areas--Summers 2010 and 2011 Results

A Research Experience for Undergraduates Site Project, funded by the National Science Foundation (GEO/EAR)

Yellowstone National Park offers an amazing array of geologic features--hot springs, active tectonics, Eocene and Quaternary volcanism--and a largely unexplored sequence of Precambrian rocks along its northern border and adjacent exposures in the rugged Beartooth Mountains of Montana and Wyoming. The Evolution of Precambrian Rocks of Yellowstone National Park (YNP) REU site project provided a complete research experience for students in three major components:

  • Field mapping and sampling to contribute to a new geologic map of the basement rocks of YNP and vicinity; formulation of testable hypotheses by smaller working groups of students to address significant questions on the petrogenesis, architecture, tectonic environment and geologic evolution of these Precambrian rocks that have contributed to the larger group research project. During summer of 2010 the field work was centered on the Jardine Metasedimentary Sequence located along the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone to the Garnet Hill area. The 2011 field eperience was focused on the metaignous rocks in the Slough Creek area of YNP, and 2 weeks working out of Cooke City, MT, to the east along the Beartooth Highway.
  • Direct experience in modern analytical studiesincluding sample preparation, training on modern instrumentation (geochemical and geochronological, University of Florida; mineral analyses using SEM, electron microprobe, and XRD, Louisiana State University and Montana State University), data acquisition, reduction, presentation, and interpretation; and
  • Presentation of research results, initially by submitting an abstract for a poster presentation at the Rocky Mountain Section meeting of the Geological Society of America, and participating in a group reunion meeting to contribute to a peer-reviewed journal article.

The Precambrian rocks that occur along the northern margin of Yellowstone National Park reside in relative obscurity, compared with the more charismatic geologic interests related to hot spot volcanism, active tectonics, and life in extreme environments. Nonetheless, these rocks are an important component of the Yellowstone GeoEcosystem, and represent a missing chapter of the overall natural history of the Park. In addition, these basement rocks occupy a large unknown region in our long-term research program to characterize the petrogenesis and evolution of the Precambrian rocks of the Wyoming craton, including surrounding areas such as the Beartooth Mountains (Mueller et al., 1998, 2005; Mogk and Henry, 1988; Mogk et al., 1988, 1992, ) and Archean-cored Laramide uplifts in regions to the west (Madison Range, and Tobacco Root Mountains; Mueller and Frost, 2006; Mogk et al., 1992; Mueller et al., 2004; Mogk et al., 2004).

Some of the key research questions that were addressed include:

  • What is the relationship of the metaigneous rocks (Archean gneiss unit) in YNP to the more completely characterized and apparently older late Archean magmatic rocks of the Beartooth Mountains (Mueller et al., 1982, 1983, 1985, 1988)? Do these rocks have similar compositions and ages, and do they derive from similar source areas and petrogenetic processes? Is extant geochronology accurate?
  • What are the ages and depositional environments of the metasedimentary rocks? What is the provenance of the sediments, and are these source areas currently recognizable in the Wyoming Province or were these rocks emplaced during Proterozoic orogenesis?
  • What is the nature of the contacts of the metasedimentary and metaigneous rocks--are they tectonic or intrusive? Is there confirming evidence that the unusually low-grade metasedimentary rocks are allochthonous in their current setting (Mogk, 1984), and, if so, when and how were they tectonically emplaced? Do they have compositions similar to the most unusual, transition metal-enriched metasedimentary rocks of the Stillwater aureole? To what extent has the regional Paleoproterozoic tectonothermal event (ca. 1.8-1.6 Ga, as preserved in the Precambrian basement west of YNP, e.g., Harms et al., 2004) affected the rocks in this area? Prior work indicated that K-Ar systems have been partially reset in this area, whereas K-Ar ages further east in the main Beartooth massif have preserved late Archean ages (ca. 2.5 Ga).
  • To what extent have the ages, compositions, and architecture of the basement rocks impacted the geologic evolution of the area in terms of the crustal genesis (e.g. crust-mantle interactions; geochemical cycling; igneous petrogenesis; metallogenesis; number and timing of orogenic events; reactivation of basement structures)? The age, composition, and structures of these rocks have important influences on other topical geological questions such as volcanic processes (e.g., what was the basement contribution to the crustal melting that may have contributed to Eocene Absaroka or Quaternary Yellowstone volcanism?), neotectonics (e.g., do basement structures control the location of active structures in the Laramide, Sevier, and Basin-and-Range styles of faulting?), and metallogenesis (e.g., was the Precambrian basement the source of gold mineralization in the historical gold-mining districts at Jardine, Independence Stock (a Cretaceous porphyry system), and Crown Butte (a stratabound Au-Cu system related to the Eocene Absaroka volcanism)?

The scientific objectives of this REU site project contributed to the scientific research base on the natural history of YNP and to a broader research initiative that seeks to characterize the petrogenesis, architecture, and evolution of the Wyoming craton. However, the scientific results were closely tied to the student research experiences. For a summary of the scientific results, and the professional development program designed for the REU students, see Origins of a Continent (Acrobat (PDF) 2MB Feb9 13) published in Yellowstone Science in 2012.

Research papers and presentations that were an outgrowth of this project include:

  • Mueller, P. A., Wooden, J. L., Mogk, D. W., Henry, D. J., and Bowes, D. R., 2010, Rapid Growth of an Archean Continent by Arc Magmatism, Precambrian Research, v. 183, p. 70-88.
  • Mogk, D. W., Henry, D. J., Mueller, P.A., and Foster, D. A., 2012, Origins of a Continent, Yellowstone Science, v. 20(2), p. 22-32.
  • Henry, D.J., Mogk, D.W., Mueller, P.A., Foster, D.A., and Wooden, J.L., 2012, Upper-to-middle level exposure of a 2.8 Ga continent: Plutonic and metamorphic rocks of northern Wyoming Province, USA. 4D Adamello Conference, p. 17.
  • Bricker, A., Foster, D.A., Min, K., Henry, D.J., Mogk, D.W., Mueller, P.A., Kohn, B.P., and Shan, J., 2012, Low-temperature thermochronology of Precambrian rocks reveals exhumation caused by the Yellowstone Hot Spot. The 13th International Conference on Thermochronology.
  • Henry, D.J., Mogk, D.W., Mueller, P.A., Foster, D.A., Wooden, J.L. and Dutrow, B. L., 2013, Upper-to-middle level exposure of a 2.8 Ga continent in the northern Wyoming Province, USA: petrologic-mineralogical evidence. Geological Association of Canada and Mineralogical Association of Canada.

Additional results of this project are broken out by 2010-2011 student contributions, 2011-2012 student contributions and project design/learning outcomes presentations.

Results from the 2010-2011 REU Project

During the 2010-2011 project, students spent a month in the summer mapping and sampling in the Precambrian rocks exposed in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park. This work focused on the metasedimentary rocks exposed in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone (provenance and tectonic setting of deposition), the structural and metamorphic history of the area, the geochemistry and geochronology of two granitic plutons and related mafic intrusions, and complex field relations observed at Garnet Hill and in the Vantage Butte areas. Students subsequently contributed to analytical work (whole rock geochemistry, geochronology and thermochronology, electron microprobe analysis), and presented their findings at the 2011 Geological Society of America joint meeting of the Rocky Mountain and Cordilleran Sections (in Logan, UT, May 18-20). You can see the results of this project in the following Powerpoint files of the posters that were presented:

Evolution of the Precambrian Rocks of Yellowstone National Park:

  • Overview (PowerPoint 1.8MB May23 11)--Mogk, Henry, Mueller, Foster
  • Metasedimentary Rocks (PowerPoint 10.5MB May23 11)--Goldstein, Sauer, Harwood, Mogk, Henry, Mueller, Foster
  • Structural Geology (PowerPoint 5.1MB May23 11)--Fereday, Kraushaar, Lynch, Mogk, Henry, Foster
  • Metamorphism (PowerPoint 9.1MB May23 11)--Osborne, Baldwin, Henry, Mogk, Mueller, Foster
  • Felsic Plutons (PowerPoint 3MB May23 11)--Philbrick, Ware, Henry, Mogk, Mueller, Foster
  • Mafic to Intermediate Plutons (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 9.4MB May23 11)--Maloney, Mertzman, Henry, Mogk, Mueller, Foster
  • Garnet Hill Area (PowerPoint 3.9MB May23 11)--Parks, Davidson, Henry, Mogk
  • Junction Butte Area (PowerPoint 3.2MB May23 11)--Lexvold, Gilbertson, Mogk, Henry, Mueller, Foster

Results from the 2011-2012 REU Project

During the 2011-2012 field season, students spent two weeks mapping and sampling the diverse suite of metaigneous rocks exposed in the Slough Creek area. These rocks included compositional varieties ranging from granite to diorite, with minor amphibolite or metesedimentary inclusions. A major shear zone was defined along the Yellowstone River east of Garnet Hill. We also spent two weeks in the Cooke City area just east of YNP to continue our investigations of the metaigneous rocks. Samples were collected from the Broadwater River area to the east along the Beartooth Highway up to Beartooth Lake. A suite of Precambrian rocks was collected along the Beartooth Highwy for U/Th-He dating of apatites to determine uplift rates of the Beartooth Mountains. All students had the opportunity to do geochemical/geochronologic studies at the University of Florida. The results of this work were presented at the 2012 Geological Society of America Rocky Mountain Section meeting in Albuquerque, NM May 9-11. The Powerpoint files of the posters that were presented cab be accessed below:

Reports on the REU Project Design and Student Learning Outcomes

The REU experience was used as part of our continuing interests in research in learning in the geosciences, particularly in the field environment. The following presentations were made at national and international meetings of professional societies:

  • Mogk, D., Henry, D.J., Mueller, P.A., and Foster, D.A., 2010, Evolution of Precambrian Rocks in Yellowstone National Park--An NSF/REU Site Project, Geol. Soc. Amer. Ann. Meeting Progr. w. Abstract.
  • Mogk, D., and Henry, D., 2011, Reconnaissance or Focused Field Experiences: What Works? Geol. Soc. Amer. Ann. Meeting Progr. w. Abstract.
  • Foster, D., Mogk, D., Henry, D., and Mueller, P., 2011, Evolution of Archean Rocks of the South Snowy Block, Yellowstone National Park: Results of an REU Site Project, Geol. Soc. Amer. Ann. Meeting Progr. w. Abstract.
  • Mogk, D., 2012, Research in the Field: Pathway Towards Producing Great Science, Developing Great Scientists, Geol. Soc. Amer. Ann. Meeting Progr. w. Abstract.
  • Singer, J., and Mogk, D., 2012, Assessing Undergraduate Research as Pedagogy, Geol. Soc. Amer. Ann. Meeting Progr. w. Abstract.
  • Goodwin, C., and Mogk, 2010, Field Studies--Essential Cognitive Foundations for Geoscience Expertise, Amer. Geophys. Union Fall Meeting
  • Mogk, D., and Henry, 2010, The Yellowstone REU Site Project: Building Confidence, Competence and Capacity,
    Amer. Geophys. Union Fall Meeting
  • Henry, D., Mogk, D., and Goodwin, C., 2011, Cognitive Factors that Impact Learning in the Field: Observations from an REU Project on Precambrian Rocks of Yellowstone National Park. Amer. Geophys. Union Fall Meeting. REU Project on Precambrian Rocks of Yellowstone National Park, Amer. Geophys. Union Fall Meeting
  • Mogk, D., Henry, D., and Goodwin, C., 2012, Geologic Mapping: An Acquired Skill Required for all Geoscientists, 34th International Geological Congress , Brisbane.

Research Staff

Our assembled research team has worked together on the genesis and evolution of the Precambrian crust of the northern Wyoming Province for over thirty years. These researchers bring a wealth of experience to this project, using a multi-faceted approach that integrates field studies, petrologic investigations, structural geology geochemical analysis, and geochronology and thermochronology. Together, we all bring great experience in analytical studies, and we all share a love of working in the field. The instructors of this field project include:

Dave Mogk; Professor of Geology, Dept. of Earth Sciences, Montana State University. He has been working in the Archean basement of Montana for thirty years, starting with his dissertation in the North Snowy Block of the Absaroka Range, and continuing across the Beartooths, Madison, Tobacco Root, Gravelly, Highland, and Little Belt Mountains. He is a metamorphic petrologist, with allied interests in structural geology (ductile deformation) and geochemistry.
Darrell Henry; Professor of Geology and Geophysics, Louisiana State University. He has worked in the Beartooth Mountains and surrounding Archean basement for thirty years as well as a variety of metamorphic terrains from NW Maine to the Mojave Desert, California. He is a metamorphic petrologist with interests in the development and applications of quantitative thermobarometry to tectonic problems. His other research interests focus on the characterization of detrital minerals, particularly tourmaline, to interpret provenance and geologic history of a wide range of geological settings.
Paul Mueller; Professor of Geology, University of Florida. He is a geochemist and geochronologist with long-time interests in Archean crustal genesis and evolution. Primary research activities involve application of whole rock geochemistry (major and trace element), and isotope systematics (geochronology and isotopic tracers) to the processes and history of crustal evolution.
David Foster; Professorof Geology, University of Florida. He studies the tectonic evolution of continents, mountain belts, and extensional basins. He uses thermochronology, structural geology and isotope geochemistry to understand the evolution and deformation of continental crust in western North America, Australia, Africa, and New Zealand.

Selected References for Further Reading

Berg, R. B., Lonn, J. D., and Locke, W. W., 1999, Geologic Map of the Gardiner 30' x 60' Quadrangle, south-Central Montana, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Open File Report MBMG 387

Casella, C. J., Levay, J. Eble, E., and others, 1982, Precambrian geology of the southwestern Beartooth Mountains, Yellowstone National park, Montana and Wyoming, in Precambrian Geology of the Beartooth Mountains, Montana and Wyoming, MBMG Sp. Publ., 84, p 1-24.

Foster, D.A., P.A. Mueller, D.W. Mogk, J.L. Wooden, and J.J. Vogl, 2006, Proterozoic evolution of the western margin of the Wyoming Craton: implications for the tectonic and magmatic evolution of the northern Rocky Mountains: Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, v. 43, p. 1601-1619, doi: 10.1139/E06-052.

Hallager, W. S., 1984, Geology of gold-bearing metasediments near Jardine, Montana, in Gold '82 the Geology, Geochemistry and Genesis of Gold Deposits, A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands, pp. 191-218.

Harms, T. A., Brady, J. B., Burger, H. R., and Cheney, J. T., 2004, Advances in the geology of the Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana, and their implications for the history of the northern Wyoming Province, , in J. B. Brady, H. R. Burger, J. T. Cheney and T. A. Harms (eds.), Precambrian Geology of the Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana, GSA Special Paper 377, pp. 227-246.

Henry, D. J., Mueller, P. A., Wooden, J. L., Warner, J. L., and Lee-Berman, R., 1982, Granulite facies supracrustal assemblages of the Quad Creek area, eastern Beartooth Mountains, Montana: In Mueller, P. A. and Wooden, J. L., eds., Precambrian Geology of the Beartooth Mountains, Montana and Wyoming, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Special Publication, v. 84, p. 147-156.

Henry, D. J., Zimmerman, E. C., Mueller, P. A. and Mogk, D., 1998, Age constraints and provenance of Archean metaturbidites and auriferous ironstones of the Jardine area, MT (USA). Proceedings of the International Geological Correlation Program - Project 371, The Archean-Proterozoic transition in the northern Wyoming Province - Crustal Genesis, Evolution and Cratonization.

Jablinski, J., and Holst, T., 1990, Deformational history of Archean metasedimentary rocks of the Beartooth Mountains in the vicinity of the Mineral Hill Mine, Jardine, Montana, Jour. Geol., v. 100 no 5, 561-578.

Mogk, D. W., 1984, Archean allochthonous units in the northern and western Beartooth Mountains, Montana, in S.E. Lewis and R. B. Berg (eds) Precambrian and Mesozoic Plate Margins: Montana, Idaho and Wyoming with Field Guides for the 8th International Conference on Basement Tectonics, MBMG Sp. Publ., 96, 43-52.

Mogk, D.W., Mueller, P.A., and Wooden, J.L., 1988, Archean Tectonics of the North- Snowy-Block, Beartooth Mountains, Montana. Journal of Geology, 96, 125-141.

Mogk, D.W., Mueller, P.A., and Wooden, J.L., 1992, The Nature of Archean Terrane Boundaries - an Example from the Northern Wyoming Province. Precambrian Research, 55, 155-168.

Mogk, D. W.,Burger, H. R., Mueller, P. A., D'Arcy, K., Heatherington, A., Wooden, J. L., Abeyta, R. L., Martin, J., Jacob, L. J., 2004, Geochemistry of quartzofeldspathic gneisses and metamorphic mafic rocks of the Indian Creek and Pony-Middle Mountain Metamorphic Suites, Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana, in J. B. Brady, H. R. Burger, J. T. Cheney and T. A. Harms (eds.), Precambrian Geology of the Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana, GSA Special Paper 377, pp. 15-46.

Montgomery, C. W., and Lytwyn, J. N., 1984, Rb-Sr systematics and ages of principal Precambrian lithologies in the South Snowy Block, Beartooth Mountains, Jour. of Geology, v. 92 no 1, 103-112.

Mueller, P. A., Wooden, J. L., Odom, A. L. and Bowes, D. R., 1982, Geochemistry of the Archean rocks of the Quad Creek and Hellroaring Plateau areas of the eastern Beartooth Mountains. Mueller, P. A. and Wooden, J. L., eds., Precambrian Geology of the Beartooth Mountains, Montana and Wyoming, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Special Publication 84, 69-82.

Mueller, P. A., Wooden, J. L., Schulz, K., Bowes, D. R., 1983, Incompatible-element-rich andesitic amphibolites from the Archean of Montana and Wyoming: Evidence for mantle metasomatism. Geology, 11, 203-206.

Mueller, P. A., Wooden, J. L., Henry, D. J., and Bowes, D. R., 1985, Archean crustal evolution of the eastern Beartooth Mountains, Montana and Wyoming: in Czamanske, O.K., and Zientek, M. L., eds., Stillwater Complex, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Special Publication 92, 9-20.

Mueller, P. A., Shuster, R. D., Graves, M. A., Wooden, J. L. and Bowes, D. R., 1988, Age and composition of a late magmatic complex, Beartooth Mountains. Montana Bureau of Mines Special Publication, 96, 7-22.

Mueller, P.A., Wooden, J.L., Mogk, D.W., Nutman, A.P., and Williams, I.S. (1996)Extended history of a 3.5 Ga trondhjemitic Gneiss, Wyoming province, USA: Evidence from U-Pb systematics in zircon. Precambrian Research, 78, 41-52.

Mueller, P. A., Wooden, J. LO., Nutman, A. Pl, and Mogk, D. W., 1998, Early Archean crust in the northern Wyoming province Evidence from U-Pb ages of detrital zircons, Precambrian Research, vol 91, p. 295-307.

Mueller, P. A., Burger, R. H., Wooden, J. L., Heatherington, A. L., Mogk, D. W., and D'Arcy, K., 2004, Age and evolution of the Precambrian crust of the Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana, in J. B. Brady, H. R. Burger, J. T. Cheney and T. A. Harms (eds.), Precambrian Geology of the Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana, GSA Special Paper 377, pp. 181-202.

Mueller, P.A., Burger, H.R., Wooden, J.L., Brady, J.B., Cheney, J.T., Harms, T.A., Heatherington, A. L., and Mogk, D. W., 2005, Paleoproterozoic metamorphism in the northern Wyoming province: Implications for the assembly of Laurentia. Journal of Geology, 113, 169-179.

Mueller, P.A., and Frost, C.D., 2006, The Wyoming Province: a distinctive Archean craton in Laurentian North America. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 43(10), 1391- 1397.

Zimmerman, E. C., Henry, D. J., Mueller, P. A. and Mogk, D. ,1998, Provenance and age of an ancient sedimentary basin: Evidence from detrital tourmaline and zircon. Transactions from the American Geophysical Union, 79, S354-355.


This project was supported through the NSF REU program, Division of Earth Science grants EAR 0852025, 0851752, and 0851934.

Special thanks to YNP staff, Christie Hendrix, Stacey Gunther, Carrie Guiles, Bridgette Guild and Hank Heasler for their support and encouragement and interest.

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