Foliation (geology)

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Gneiss, a foliated metamorphic rock. Gneiss.jpg
Gneiss, a foliated metamorphic rock.
Quartzite, a non-foliated metamorphic rock. Quartzite Sollieres.jpg
Quartzite, a non-foliated metamorphic rock.

Foliation in geology refers to repetitive layering in metamorphic rocks. [1] Each layer can be as thin as a sheet of paper, or over a meter in thickness. [1] The word comes from the Latin folium, meaning "leaf", and refers to the sheet-like planar structure. [1] It is caused by shearing forces (pressures pushing different sections of the rock in different directions), or differential pressure (higher pressure from one direction than in others). The layers form parallel to the direction of the shear, or perpendicular to the direction of higher pressure. Nonfoliated metamorphic rocks are typically formed in the absence of significant differential pressure or shear. [1] Foliation is common in rocks affected by the regional metamorphic compression typical of areas of mountain belt formation (orogenic belts).


More technically, foliation is any penetrative planar fabric present in metamorphic rocks. Rocks exhibiting foliation include the standard sequence formed by the prograde metamorphism of mudrocks; slate, phyllite, schist and gneiss. The slatey cleavage typical of slate is due to the preferred orientation of microscopic phyllosilicate crystals. In gneiss, the foliation is more typically represented by compositional banding due to segregation of mineral phases. Foliated rock is also known as S-tectonite in sheared rock masses.

Examples include the bands in gneiss (gneissic banding), a preferred orientation of planar large mica flakes in schist (schistosity), the preferred orientation of small mica flakes in phyllite (with its planes having a silky sheen, called phylitic luster – the Greek word, phyllon, also means "leaf"), the extremely fine grained preferred orientation of clay flakes in slate (called "slaty cleavage"), and the layers of flattened, smeared, pancake-like clasts in metaconglomerate. [1]

Formation mechanisms

Foliation is usually formed by the preferred orientation of minerals within a rock.

Usually, this is a result of some physical force and its effect on the growth of minerals. The planar fabric of a foliation typically forms at right angles to the maximum principal stress direction. In sheared zones, however, planar fabric within a rock may not be directly perpendicular to the principal stress direction due to rotation, mass transport, and shortening.

Foliation may be formed by realignment of micas and clays via physical rotation of the minerals within the rock. Often this foliation is associated with diagenetic metamorphism and low-grade burial metamorphism. Foliation may parallel original sedimentary bedding, but more often is oriented at some angle to it.

The growth of platy minerals, typically of the mica group, is usually a result of prograde metamorphic reactions during deformation. Often, retrograde metamorphism will not form a foliation because the unroofing of a metamorphic belt is not accompanied by significant compressive stress. Thermal metamorphism in the aureole of a granite is also unlikely to result in the growth of mica in a foliation, although the growth of new minerals may overprint existing foliation(s).

Alignment of tabular minerals in metamorphic rocks, igneous rocks and intrusive rocks may form a foliation. Typical examples of metamorphic rocks include porphyroblastic schists where large, oblate minerals form an alignment either due to growth or rotation in the groundmass.

Igneous rocks can become foliated by alignment of cumulate crystals during convection in large magma chambers, especially ultramafic intrusions, and typically plagioclase laths. Granite may form foliation due to frictional drag on viscous magma by the wall rocks. Lavas may preserve a flow foliation, or even compressed eutaxitic texture, typically in highly viscous felsic agglomerate, welded tuff and pyroclastic surge deposits.

Metamorphic differentiation, typical of gneisses, is caused by chemical and compositional banding within the metamorphic rock mass. Usually, this represents the protolith chemistry, which forms distinct mineral assemblages. However, compositional banding can be the result of nucleation processes which cause chemical and mineralogical differentiation into bands. This typically follows the same principle as mica growth, perpendicular to the principal stress. Metamorphic differentiation can be present at angles to protolith compositional banding.

Crenulation cleavage and oblique foliation are particular types of foliation.


Foliation, as it forms generally perpendicular to the direction of principal stress, records the direction of shortening. This is related to the axis of folds, which generally form an axial-planar foliation within their axial regions.

Measurement of the intersection between a fold's axial plane and a surface on the fold will provide the fold plunge. If a foliation does not match the observed plunge of a fold, it is likely associated with a different deformation event.

Foliation in areas of shearing, and within the plane of thrust faults, can provide information on the transport direction or sense of movement on the thrust or shear. Generally, the acute intersection angle shows the direction of transport. Foliations typically bend or curve into a shear, which provides the same information, if it is of a scale which can be observed.

Foliations, in a regional sense, will tend to curve around rigid, incompressible bodies such as granite. Thus, they are not always 'planar' in the strictest sense and may violate the rule of being perpendicular to the regional stress field, due to local influences. This is a megascopic version of what may occur around porphyroblasts. Often, fine observation of foliations on outcrop, hand specimen and on the microscopic scale complements observations on a map or regional scale.


When describing a foliation it is useful to note

Following such a methodology allows eventual correlations in style, metamorphic grade, and intensity throughout a region, relationship to faults, shears, structures and mineral assemblages.

Engineering considerations

In geotechnical engineering a foliation plane may form a discontinuity that may have a large influence on the mechanical behavior (strength, deformation, etc.) of rock masses in, for example, tunnel, foundation, or slope construction.

See also

Related Research Articles

Gneiss A common high-grade metamorphic rock

Gneiss is a common and widely distributed type of metamorphic rock. Gneiss is formed by high temperature and high-pressure metamorphic processes acting on formations composed of igneous or sedimentary rocks. Orthogneiss is gneiss derived from igneous rock. Paragneiss is gneiss derived from sedimentary rock. Gneiss forms at higher temperatures and pressures than schist. Gneiss nearly always shows a banded texture characterized by alternating darker and lighter colored bands and without a distinct foliation.

Structural geology The science of the description and interpretation of deformation in the Earths crust

Structural geology is the study of the three-dimensional distribution of rock units with respect to their deformational histories. The primary goal of structural geology is to use measurements of present-day rock geometries to uncover information about the history of deformation (strain) in the rocks, and ultimately, to understand the stress field that resulted in the observed strain and geometries. This understanding of the dynamics of the stress field can be linked to important events in the geologic past; a common goal is to understand the structural evolution of a particular area with respect to regionally widespread patterns of rock deformation due to plate tectonics.

Schist Medium grade metamorphic rock with lamellar grain

Schist is a medium-grade metamorphic rock formed from mudstone or shale. Schist has medium to large, flat, sheet-like grains in a preferred orientation. It is defined by having more than 50% platy and elongated minerals, often finely interleaved with quartz and feldspar. These lamellar minerals include micas, chlorite, talc, hornblende, graphite, and others. Quartz often occurs in drawn-out grains to such an extent that a particular form called quartz schist is produced. Schist is often garnetiferous. Schist forms at a higher temperature and has larger grains than phyllite. Geological foliation with medium to large grained flakes in a preferred sheetlike orientation is called schistosity.

Metamorphic rock Rock which was subjected to heat and pressure causing profound physical or chemical change

Metamorphic rocks arise from the transformation of existing rock types, in a process called metamorphism, which means "change in form". The original rock (protolith) is subjected to heat and pressure, causing profound physical or chemical change. The protolith may be a sedimentary, igneous, or existing metamorphic rock.

Migmatite A mixture of metamorphic rock and igneous rock

Migmatite is a composite rock found in medium and high-grade metamorphic environments. It consists of two or more constituents often layered repetitively; one layer was formerly paleosome, a metamorphic rock that was reconstituted subsequently by partial melting; the alternate layer has a pegmatitic, aplitic, granitic or generally plutonic appearance. Commonly, migmatites occur below deformed metamorphic rocks that represent the base of eroded mountain chains, commonly within Precambrian cratonic blocks,

Phyllite foliated metamorphic rock

Phyllite is a type of foliated metamorphic rock created from slate that is further metamorphosed so that very fine grained white mica achieves a preferred orientation. It is primarily composed of quartz, sericite mica, and chlorite.

Granulite A class of high-grade medium to coarse grained metamorphic rocks

Granulites are a class of high-grade metamorphic rocks of the granulite facies that have experienced high-temperature and moderate-pressure metamorphism. They are medium to coarse–grained and mainly composed of feldspars sometimes associated with quartz and anhydrous ferromagnesian minerals, with granoblastic texture and gneissose to massive structure. They are of particular interest to geologists because many granulites represent samples of the deep continental crust. Some granulites experienced decompression from deep in the Earth to shallower crustal levels at high temperature; others cooled while remaining at depth in the Earth.

Narryer Gneiss Terrane A geological complex of ancient rocks in Western Australia

The Narryer Gneiss Terrane is a geological complex in Western Australia that is composed of a tectonically interleaved and polydeformed mixture of granite, mafic intrusions and metasedimentary rocks in excess of 3.3 billion years old, with the majority of the Narryer Gneiss Terrane in excess of 3.6 billion years old. The rocks have experienced multiple metamorphic events at amphibolite or granulite conditions, resulting in often complete destruction of original igneous or sedimentary (protolith) textures. Importantly, it contains the oldest known samples of the Earth's crust: samples of zircon from the Jack Hills portion of the Narryer Gneiss have been radiometrically dated at 4.4 billion years old, although the majority of zircon crystals are about 3.6-3.8 billion years old.

Shear (geology) in geology, the response of a rock to deformation usually by compressive stress

In geology, shear is the response of a rock to deformation usually by compressive stress and forms particular textures. Shear can be homogeneous or non-homogeneous, and may be pure shear or simple shear. Study of geological shear is related to the study of structural geology, rock microstructure or rock texture and fault mechanics.

Rock microstructure includes the texture of a rock and the small scale rock structures. The words "texture" and "microstructure" are interchangeable, with the latter preferred in modern geological literature. However, texture is still acceptable because it is a useful means of identifying the origin of rocks, how they formed, and their appearance.


A porphyroblast is a large mineral crystal in a metamorphic rock which has grown within the finer grained matrix. Porphyroblasts are commonly euhedral crystals, but can also be partly to completely irregular in shape.

In a geological context, crenulation or crenulation cleavage is a fabric formed in metamorphic rocks such as phyllite, schist and some gneiss by two or more stress directions causing the formation of the superimposed foliations.


Litchfieldite is a rare igneous rock. It is a coarse-grained, foliated variety of nepheline syenite, sometimes called nepheline syenite gneiss or gneissic nepeheline syenite. Litchfieldite is composed of two varieties of feldspar, with nepheline, sodalite, cancrinite and calcite. The mafic minerals, when present, are magnetite and an iron-rich variety of biotite (lepidomelane).

Lineations in structural geology are linear structural features within rocks. There are several types of lineations, intersection lineations, crenulation lineations, mineral lineations and stretching lineations being the most common. Lineation field measurements are recorded as map lines with a plunge angle and azimuth.

Augen eye-shaped mineral grains or mineral aggregates

Augen are large, lenticular eye-shaped mineral grains or mineral aggregates visible in some foliated metamorphic rocks. In cross section they have the shape of an eye.

Tectonite rock type

Tectonites are metamorphic or tectonically deformed rocks whose fabric reflects the history of their deformation, or rocks with fabric that clearly displays coordinated geometric features that indicate continuous solid (ductile) flow during formation. Planar foliation results from a parallel orientation of platey mineral phases such as the phyllosilicates or graphite. Slender prismatic crystals such as amphibole produce a lineation in which these prisms or columnar crystals become aligned. Tectonites are rocks with minerals that have been affected by natural forces of the earth, which allowed their orientations to change. This usually includes recrystallization of minerals, and the foliation formation. Tectonites are studied through structural analysis and allows for the determination of two things:

Cleavage (geology)

Cleavage, in structural geology and petrology, describes a type of planar rock feature that develops as a result of deformation and metamorphism. The degree of deformation and metamorphism along with rock type determines the kind of cleavage feature that develops. Generally these structures are formed in fine grained rocks composed of minerals affected by pressure solution.

This glossary of geology is a list of definitions of terms and concepts relevant to geology, its sub-disciplines, and related fields. For other terms related to the Earth sciences, see Glossary of geography terms.

The Thiviers-Payzac Unit is a metasedimentary succession of late Neoproterozoic and Cambrian age outcropping in the southern Limousin in France. The unit geologically forms part of the Variscan basement of the northwestern Massif Central.

The geology of Nigeria formed beginning in the Archean and Proterozoic eons of the Precambrian. The country forms the Nigerian Province and more than half of its surface is igneous and metamorphic crystalline basement rock from the Precambrian. Between 2.9 billion and 500 million years ago, Nigeria was affected by three major orogeny mountain-building events and related igneous intrusions. Following the Pan-African orogeny, in the Cambrian at the time that multi-cellular life proliferated, Nigeria began to experience regional sedimentation and witnessed new igneous intrusions. By the Cretaceous period of the late Mesozoic, massive sedimentation was underway in different basins, due to a large marine transgression. By the Eocene, in the Cenozoic, the region returned to terrestrial conditions.


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