Ophiolite-Related Ultramafic Rocks (Serpentinites) in the Caribbean Region: A Review of their Occurrence, Composition, Origin, Emplacement and Ni-Laterite Soil Formation


  • J.F. LEWIS The George Washington University
  • G. DRAPER Florida International University
  • J.A. PROENZA FERNÁNDEZ Facultat de Geologia, Universitat de Barcelona
  • J. ESPAILLAT Corporación Minera Dominicana
  • J. JIMÉNEZ Falconbridge Dominicana




Peridotite, Serpentinite, Ni-Laterite, Ophiolite, Caribbean


Ultramafic rocks, mainly serpentinized peridotites of mantle origin, are mostly associated with the ophiolites of Mesozoic age that occur in belts along three of the margins of the Caribbean plate. The most extensive exposures are in Cuba. The ultramafic-mafic association (ophiolites) were formed and emplaced in several different tectonic environments. Mineralogical studies of the ultramafic rocks and the chemistry of the associated mafic rocks indicate that most of the ultramafic-mafic associations in both the northern and southern margins of the plate were formed in arc-related environments. There is little mantle peridotite exposed in the ophiolitic associations of the west coast of Central America, in the south Caribbean in Curacao and in the Andean belts in Colombia. In these occurrences the chemistry and age of the mafic rocks indicates that this association is mainly part of the 89 Ma Caribbean plateau province. The age of the mantle peridotites and associated ophiolites is probably mainly late Jurassic or Early Cretaceous. Emplacement of the ophiolites possibly began in the Early Cretaceous in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, but most emplacement took place in the Late Cretaceous to Eocene (e.g. Cuba). Along the northern South America plate margin, in the Caribbean mountain belt, emplacement was by major thrusting and probably was not completed until the Oligocene or even the early Miocene. Caribbean mantle peridotites, before serpentinization, were mainly harzburgites, but dunites and lherzolites are also present. In detail, the mineralogical and chemical composition varies even within one ultramafic body, reflecting melting processes and peridotite/melt interaction in the upper mantle. At least for the northern Caribbean, uplift (postemplacement tectonics) exposed the ultramafic massifs as a land surface to effective laterization in the beginning of the Miocene. Tectonic factors, determining the uplift, exposing the peridotites to weathering varied. In the northern Caribbean, in Guatemala, Jamaica, and Hispaniola, uplift occurred as a result of transpresional movement along pre-existing major faults. In Cuba, uplift occurred on a regional scale, determined by isostatic adjustment. In the south Caribbean, uplift of the Cordillera de la Costa and Serrania del Interior exposing the peridotites, also appears to be related to strike-slip movement along the El Pilar fault system. In the Caribbean, Ni-laterite deposits are currently being mined in the central Dominican Republic, eastern Cuba, northern Venezuela and northwest Colombia. Although apparently formed over ultramafic rocks of similar composition and under similar climatic conditions, the composition of the lateritic soils varies. Factors that probably determined these differences in laterite composition are geomorphology, topography, drainage and tectonics. According to the mineralogy of principal ore-bearing phases, Dominican Ni-laterite deposits are classified as the hydrous silicate-type. The main Ni-bearing minerals are hydrated Mg-Ni silicates (serpentine and “garnierite”) occurring deeper in the profile (saprolite horizon). In contrast, in the deposits of eastern Cuba, the Ni and Co occurs mainly in the limonite zone composed of Fe hydroxides and oxides as the dominant mineralogy in the upper part of the profile, and are classified as the oxide-type.

Author Biographies

J.F. LEWIS, The George Washington University

Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences

G. DRAPER, Florida International University

Dept. of Earth Sciences

J.A. PROENZA FERNÁNDEZ, Facultat de Geologia, Universitat de Barcelona

Departament de Cristalografia, Mineralogia i Dipòsits Minerals


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