The Hell Creek Formation and its contribution to the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction: A short primer

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Although it represents but one geographic data point, the uppermost Maastrichtian Hell Creek Formation (HCF), exposed in the upper Great Plains of the North American craton, remains the most studied source for understanding the final ~1.5 Myr of the Mesozoic Era in the terrestrial realm. Because it lies conformably below the earliest Paleocene Fort Union Formation, and together these two units preserve a rich fauna and flora, much of what is understood about the terrestrial Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary comes from this sequence.The HCF has been reconstructed as an expansive, fluvially drained, low coastal plain, built out, to the west, against the Laramide Orogen, and to the east, against the ultimate transgression (Cannonball) of the Western Interior Sea. Its meandering rivers and moist soils supported a multi-tiered angiosperm-dominated flora and rich insect and vertebrate faunas, including dinosaurs, crocodilians, squamates, turtles, and mammals. A dramatic facies change representing the initiation of catastrophic flooding is preserved, within available levels precision, at the K-Pg boundary.High-precision stratigraphy has proven difficult in this lenticular fluvial system. Where present, the boundary can be recognized by the bipartite boundary claystone; otherwise, palynostratigraphy has proven a powerful tool. Numerical dates have been successfully obtained from in tonsteins at the boundary and above, in the Fort Union; however, these have proven elusive below the boundary within the HCF. The K-Pg boundary in this region is dated at 66.043 Ma (Renne et al., 2013). Magnetostratigraphic studies have been carried out in the HCF; although all but one have lacked numerical dates, these have been used for correlations of widespread, disjunct exposures and for the estimation of sedimentation rates.The palynoflora is largely homogenous through the HCF; at the K-Pg boundary, it shows an abrupt ~30% extinction. This makes it a powerful tool for identification of the K-Pg boundary, although because the boundary is identified on absence of Cretaceous taxa rather than presence of earliest Paleocene taxa, several competing methods have been applied to identifying the K-Pg boundary using pollen.The macroflora, consisting largely of leaves, consists of three successive floras, showing increasing diversity through the HCF. The ultimate of these three floras undergoes an abrupt 57% extinction; taken as a whole, however, the macroflora undergoes a 78% extinction at the K-Pg boundary.The best data available for dinosaurs - including archaic Aves - show an abrupt extinction. By contrast, salamanders and other lissamphibians, as well as chelonians, cross the boundary virtually without perturbation. Squamates appear to have suffered significant extinctions at the K-Pg boundary, as did euselachians (elasmobranchs) and insects. Mammals suffered a 75% extinction; however, some of this figure cannot be shown to have occurred in less than the last 500 kyr of the Cretaceous, and thus has been potentially attributable to causes other than a bolide impact. Taken together, the survivorship patterns are concordant with the catastrophic inception of ubiquitous flooding characterizing the K-Pg boundary.While the key K-Pg boundary question in the HCF was once the rate of the biotic extinction, it has moved to the distinction between single-cause scenarios, with the Chicxulub bolide as agent of extinction, and multi-cause scenarios, uniting habitat partitioning, Deccan flood-basalt volcanism, climate change, competition, and bolide impact. Not every potential environmental perturbation need be a mechanism for the extinction: parsimony and the data continue to be concordant with a bolide impact as the single agent of the terrestrial K-Pg mass extinction.

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Cretaceous Research