The age and sequence of peat accumulation were investigated at a calcareous fen in northeastern Illinois, USA. The purpose of this study was to identify the processes that form and sustain marl flats, which are areas of marl or tufa substrate within the fen that contain numerous rare plant species. Geomorphic, stratigraphic, and radiocarbon evidence was used to establish the processes and chronology of peat accumulation and erosion adjacent to each marl flat. The age of the base of the peat deposit varies greatly throughout the fen, ranging from 14,679 calibrated years before present (cal. years BP) to nearly modern, indicating that colonization of the sand and gravel substrate by peat occurred throughout the period from the Late Pleistocene to present. Adjacent to one marl flat, trends in basal peat age and thickness show that peat accumulation has progressed laterally inward from both sides, suggesting that the marl flat has been infilling with peat progressively by accumulation at the margins since at least 5,370 cal. years BP or longer. A second marl flat in the fen is surrounded by older, thick peat of differing ages on either edge and is bounded by fresh scarps, indicating that the marl flat currently is expanding laterally by erosion into the preexisting peat blanket. These two examples suggest a continuously repeating process, where erosion of the accumulated peat blanket forms a marl flat, which is later covered by peat accumulation. Trends in basal peat age elsewhere in the fen suggest that other marl flats may have existed in the past that have been completely infilled with peat. This study suggests that marl flat formation is a natural process that has been occurring for millennia, continuously creating habitat for the rare plant species that occupy marl flats. There is no evidence that the marl flats at this site are indicative of anthropogenic disturbance, so that management options for these areas are limited to maintaining the quality and quantity of ground-water discharge that supports both peat formation and erosion.
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Vol. 23 • No. 4