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Characteristics and Origin of Rock Varnish from the Hyperarid Coastal Deserts of Northern Peru

  • Charles E. Jones (a1)

The characteristics of a new type of rock varnish from the hyperarid coastal deserts of northern Peru, combined with laboratory experiments on associated soil materials, provide new insights into the formation of rock varnish. The Peruvian varnish consists of an Fe-rich, Mn-poor component covering up to 95% of a varnished surface and a Fe-rich, Mn-rich component found only in pits and along cracks and ridges. The alkaline soils plus the catalytic Fe oxyhydroxides that coat much of the varnish surfaces make the Peruvian situation ideal for physicochemical precipitation of Mn. However, the low Mn content of the dominant Fe-rich, Mn-poor component suggests that such precipitation is minor. This, plus the presence of abundant bacteria in the Mn-rich varnish and the recorded presence of Mn-precipitating bacteria in varnish elsewhere, suggests that bacteria are almost solely responsible for Mn-precipitation in rock varnish. A set of experiments involving Peruvian soil samples in contact with water-CO2 solutions indicates that natural fogs or dews release Mn but not Fe when they come in contact with eolian materials on rock surfaces. This mechanism may efficiently provide Mn to bacteria on varnishing surfaces. The lack of Fe in solution suggests that a large but unknown proportion of Fe in varnish may be in the form of insoluble Fe oxyhydroxides sorbed onto the clay minerals that form the bulk of rock varnish. The results of this study do not substantively change R. I. Dorn's paleoenvironmental interpretations of varnish Mn:Fe ratios, but they do suggest areas for further inquiry.

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Quaternary Research
  • ISSN: 0033-5894
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