The Habitability of Basaltic Hydrovolcanic Tuffs: Implications for Mars

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Matthew Peter Casimir Nikitczuk1, Mariek E Schmidt1 and Roberta L Flemming2, (1)Brock University, St Catharines, ON, Canada, (2)University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada
Reed and South Reed Rock are two hydrovolcanic tuff ring deposits in the Fort Rock Volcanic Field (FRVF), Oregon, where microbial ichnofossils (endolithic microbores) exist within basaltic glass pyroclasts. Their presence indicates that continental volcanic settings can provide a habitable environment. The secondary phase assemblage of smectite clays (nontronite), zeolites (chabazite), calcite and palagonite point to a contemporaneous to post depositional hydrothermal alteration temperature range (~25-120°C), below which microbes introduced through groundwater were able to inhabit. Electron Dispersive Spectroscopy reveals geochemical differences between fresh glass and microbore interiors (eg., Fe, Mg depletion and K and Ca enrichment). These differences are interpreted to reflect acquisition by microbes of nutrients and energy by oxidizing and dissolving fresh basaltic glass. The Black Hills, a second study area located 20 km south the Reed Rocks, consists of a series of at least 6 hydrovolcanic vents. Petrographic observations from the Black Hills also reveal microbial ichnofossil features within basaltic glass pyroclasts. Conditions necessary for a habitable environment may therefore be common throughout the FRVF. In both locations, eruptive, depositional, and hydrothermal processes led to an environment conducive to microbial activity in which glass-rich deposits possess a source of biogenic elements, energy, and water. The histories of these deposits however, may be quite different in terms of peak hydrothermal temperatures, age relationships, water content and timing. Comparison of the textural, mineralogical and geochemical properties of the Reed Rocks and Black Hills deposits is ongoing in order to gain a better understanding of the conditions of habitability in these types of deposits. These results have important astrobiological implications for Mars where basaltic pyroclastic materials are widely distributed and may represent a habitable environment.