When South Georgia was Deep Under Ocean Currents

An Atlantic Ocean shoreline occurred at the present-day location of the Georgia fall line along an axis from Augusta to Macon to Columbus. Immediately offshore the ocean was shallow, but farther off the coast ocean currents were strong and flowed over a deep channel. This channel originated from a suture or fault where part of the African continent formerly connected to North America before the supercontinent of Pangaea rifted apart. Following sea level rise, ocean currents began flowing over this natural low area about 99 million years ago. Geologists refer to it as the Suwannee Strait during the first 60 million years of its existence and the Gulf Trough from the mid-Eocene to the mid-Miocene. Sea level changes caused the low channel to shift to the northwest, hence the name change. The swift current that flowed over it was part of the clockwise-moving Gulf Stream, an ocean circulation pattern found all the way up the North American east coast. To the south of the Suwannee Strait/Gulf Trough were shallower seas dotted with coral reef islands. During the Oligocene a large island, known as Orange Island, though no oranges grew there yet, emerged above sea level south of the trough. The Gulf Trough was deepest during the late Eocene about 35 million years ago, and geologists think parts of it were 600 feet underwater. During the Miocene sediment washed down from eroding Appalachian Mountains began to fill in the Gulf Trough. In its later years of existence, it was a slow-moving narrower estuary. About 15 million years ago sea level fell and the Gulf Trough existed for a while as an above ground canyon. Today, this canyon is buried deep underneath millions of years of sediment, but there are exposed outcrops where rivers erode through this ancient sediment. However, a relic is visible underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, and it is known as Desoto canyon.

From 99 million years ago to 15 million years ago South Georgia was under deep ocean currents. Geologists refer to this area as the Suwannee Straight and the Gulf Trough. It reached its largest depth about 35 million years ago. The Atlantic Ocean shoreline occurred along the present day fall line. South of this trough was a shallower sea dotted with coral atolls and islands that periodically rose and sank according to changing sea levels.

Swift ocean currents carried well oxygenated sea water that supported abundant aquatic life in the Suwannee Strait during the Cretaceous. Monstrous mosasaurs and pliosaurs preyed upon bony fish, some species themselves armed with fangs. Sea turtles and sharks swam over beds of an extinct group of clams known as rudists that came in many different shapes and sizes. Ammonites, extinct cephalopods related to squids and octopi, thrived in Cretaceous seas. Today, most foraminifera are small and measured in millimeters, but oddly enough there were 4-inch-long species of foraminifera living in the Suwannee Strait, though they are one-celled animals related to amoeba.

Rudist clams were abundant in the Suwannee Strait during the Cretaceous era. They came in many different shapes. They went extinct along with the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous.

During the Eocene primitive whales evolved and made the Suwannee Strait their home. The Suwannee Strait and later the Gulf Trough was still rich in fish, mollusks, and other sea life. Fossils in the limestone and shale deposits of Cretaceous through Miocene Age in the region are commonly found wherever erosional processes expose them, and the limestone itself is made of many ancient seashells.

Primitive whales swam alongside dugongs, sharks, bony fish, and turtles in the Gulf Trough during the Eocene. A skeleton of this species was found in Burke County, Georgia.

Notable fossils of Oligocene Age from the Gulf Trough include dugong, nautilus, and rhodoliths. A nearly complete skeleton of a dugong was found in a northwest Florida fuller’s earth mine. Today, just 3 species of nautilus are extant, and these occur in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but apparently, they were common during the Oligocene in the Gulf Trough. Aturia alabamensis, a 2-foot-long nautilus, likely scavenged or actively hunted crustaceans on the sea bottom. Rhodoliths still exist but were especially abundant in the Gulf Trough during the Oligocene. Rhodoliths are species of red algae that resemble coral and also produce calcium carbonate. Rhodolith fossils are part of large fossiliferous limestone outcrops found in southwest Georgia and are thought to have occurred on the shallower flanks of the Gulf Trough.

Aturia alabamensis. This was a species of nautilus that grew to 2 feet long and was common in the Gulf Trough during the Oligocene.
Rhodoliths, red algae that resembles coral, was abundant in the Gulf Trough during the Oligocene. They are still extant.
DeSoto Canyon off the Florida coast is the only remnant of the Gulf Trough that hasn’t filled with sediment.

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