From Paleos


The Geological Time Scale

Scientists divide the Earth into a number of periods - the "Geological time-scale", according to the rock types and sort of fossils found in each one. These divisions are pretty arbitrary, like any man-made divisions, but they at least can serve as useful labels. So the Paleozoic, the era of "ancient life" is characterized by fossils of invertebrates, primitive tetrapods, etc; the Mesozoic or era of "middle life", by fossils of dinosaurs etc, and the Cenozoic or era of "recent life" by mammals and modern plants and invertebrates.

These eras are divided into periods, the system of which was established by the end of the last century. The periods are in turn divided into epochs, and the epochs are divided into ages called ages. (more on these subdivisions)

Scientists know these periods lasted for millions of years, because they can date them with a fair degree of accuracy according to the amount of radioactivity that occurs in the rocks. (see Radiometric Dating)

The Geological time-scale can also be used to define the major stages in the history of life on Earth. Often each era ends with a major extinction, which eliminates the dominant life forms of the time and paves the way for newcomers


Hadean Era

This era begins with the formation of the Solar System and Earth, outgassing of first atmosphere and oceans, bombardment by left-over planetessimals and debris. The name says it all; a hellish period lasting some 760 million years, when the Earth was subject to frequent bombardment by comets, asteroids, and other planetary debris. At one point, early in this era the moon was formed when a Mars-sized body struck the original Earth, pulverizing both. Yet incredibly, the first primitive life emerged even at this early stage. This was an era characterized by extensive volcanism and formation of first continents. By the end of the Hadean, the Earth had an atmosphere (unbreathable to most organisms today), and oceans filled with prokaryote life evolution

Archean Era

Lasting more than twice as long as the Phanerozoic eon, the Archean was a time when diverse microbial life flourished in the primordial oceans, and the continental shields developed from volcanic activity. The reducing (anaerobic) atmosphere enabled archea (anaerobic microbes) to develop, and plate tectonics followed a regime of continental drift different to that of the Proterozoic and later. During this era, one type of organism, the Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) produced oxygen as a metabolic by-product; the eventual build-up of this highly reactive gas was to eventually prove fatal to many life-forms, and converted the atmosphere from.

Proterozoic Era

The Proterozoic, which lasted even longer than the Archean Era, saw the atmosphere changes from reducing to oxygenated, driving the original anaerobic inhabitants of the Earth into a few restricted anoxic refuges and enabling the rise of aerobic life (both prokaryote and the more complex eukaryotic cell, which requires the high octane boost that oxygen enables.) Stromatolites (colonial cyanobacteria), which had appeared during the Archean, were common. The modern regime of continental drift began, and saw the formation of supercontinent of Rodinia, and several extensive ice ages. Late in the Proterozoic a runaway icehouse effect meant that the preceding warm conditions were replaced by a "Snowball Earth" with ice several kilometers deep covering the globe. Warming conditions saw the short-lived Edicarian biota and finally the appearance of first metazoa.


Paleozoic Era

Early in the 300 million year history of the Paleozoic, atmospheric oxygen reached its present levels, generating the ozone shield that screens out ultraviolet radiation and allows complex life to live in the shallows and finally on land. This era witnessed the age of invertebrates, of fish, of tetrapods, and (during the Permian) reptiles. From the Silurian on, life emerged from the sea to colonize the land, and in the later Paleozoic pteridophyte and later gymnospermous plants flourished. The generally mild to tropical conditions with their warm shallow seas were interspersed with Ordovician and Permo-Carboniferous ice ages. Towards the end of the Paleozoic the continents clustered into the supercontinent of Pangea, and increasingly aridity meant the end of the great Carboniferous swamps and their unique flora and fauna. The Paleozoic was brought to an end by the end Permian mass-extinction, perhaps the most severe extinction the planet has seen.

Mesozoic Era

Lasting little more than half the duration of the Paleozoic, this was a spectacular time. The generalized archosaurian reptiles of the Triassic gave way to the dinosaurs, a terrestrial megafauna the like of which the Earth has not seen before or since. While dinosaurs dominated the land, diverse sea-reptiles ruled the oceans, and invertebrates, especially ammonites, were extremely diverse. Pterosaurs and later birds took to the sky. Mammals however remained small and insignificant. Climatic conditions remained warm and tropical worldwide. The supercontinent of Pangea broke up into Laurasia and Gondwana, with different dinosaurian faunas evolving on each. During this era modern forms of corals, insects, new fishes and finally flowering plants evolved. At the end of the Cretaceous period the dinosaurs and many other animals abruptly died out, quite likely the result of an asteroid impact and associated extensive volcanism (acid rain)

Cenozoic Era

With the extinction of the dinosaurs and the end of the Mesozoic, the mammals swiftly inherit the Earth. Archaic mammals co-existed with birds and modern reptiles and invertebrates. The current continents emerged, and the initial tropical conditions were replaced by a colder drier climate, possibly caused by the Himalayan uplift. The appearance of grass meant the rise of grazing mammals, and the cooler drier world allowed modern mammalian groups to evolve, along with other lineages now extinct and a few archaic hold-overs. Among the newcomers were the anthropoid apes that culminated in the australopithecine hominids of Africa. Decreasing temperatures and a polar landmass of Antarctica resulted in a new Ice Age. Most recently, in the blink of an eye geologically speaking, this era saw the rise of Man (Homo erectus, Neanderthal and Cro Magnon) and use of stone tools and fire, the extinction of Megafauna, and civilization and human activities that have transformed the globe, but at a cost of great environmental destruction.

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