The first sign that there was something odd about the Lower Palaeozoic in NW Europe and North America stemmed from gross mismatches between fossil assemblages only a few tens of kilometers apart across the regional strike of sedimentary rocks older than the Upper Silurian. It didn’t show up in the Devonian and Carboniferous, and nothing like it reappeared until well into the Jurassic. Until the 1960s the separation of these faunal provinces was ascribed to something akin to the Wallace Line that currently separates the flora and fauna of Oceania, Australia and the eastern islands of Indonesia from those of western Indonesia and Asia: a barrier to migration presented by the deep-water but narrow channel between Bali and Lombok in the Indonesian archipelago. The ancient biological boundary roughly coincides with the long-described Caledonian and Acadian Orogens of NW Europe and eastern North America respectively. With the discovery of plate tectonics another explanation arose: that formerly the opposite sides of the once contiguous orogens had been separated by thousands of kilometers across a former ocean. This was named in 1966 by John Tuzo Wilson after Iapetus , one of the mythical Greek titans who fathered Atlas – the eponym of the Atlantic Ocean. So, in the tectonic canon, the Caledonian-Acadian mountain belt marks the closure through subduction of its former oceanic lithosphere which brought the distinct faunal provinces together across a line known as the Iapetus Suture. Many lines of evidence time-stamp this continental collision to the end of the Silurian Period.
When the Iapetus Ocean began to open is not so easy to pin-point, save that it predated the Cambrian Period. The most likely possibility is that it marked the line of separation between fragments of the 1 billion-year old Rodinia supercontinent, which started to break up in the early Neoproterozoic. That was a protracted event, palaeomagnetic, radiometric and stratigraphic data loosely constraining extension between the former two sides of Iapetus to between 620 and 570 Ma. Around Quebec City, Canada are a number of large faults in the St Lawrence rift system that bound a zone of deep water sediments and volcanic rocks that yielded this broad age range. Yet the faults are associated with glassy rocks formed by frictional melting during brittle fracturing. These pseudotachylites can be dated, and have now helped resolve the ‘fuzziness’ of Iapetus’s formation (O’Brien, T.M. & van der Pluijm, B.A. 2012. Timing of Iapetus Ocean rifting from Ar geochronology of pseudotachylites in the St Lawrence rift system of southern Quebec. Geology, v. 40, p. 443-446). The two co-workers from the University of Michigan show that the rifting occurred between 613 and 614 Ma, coinciding with a brief period of mafic dyke emplacement in Newfoundland and Labrador. Since the Iapetus Suture occurs not far away from the St Lawrence rift system in eastern Canada the area has now become the best constrained example of what soon became known in the early days of plate tectonics as a Wilson Cycle, representing rift, drift and collision. John Tuzo Wilson (1908-1993), a Canadian descended from French and Scottish settlers, and a pioneer of the modern phase of geology, would be pleased it had finally homed in on terrain he knew well.