Paleozoic Era

The geological clock: a projection of Earth’s 4,5 Ga history on a clock Author: Woudloper Derivative work: Hardwigg Wikipedia

The Paleozoic (or Palaeozoic) Era is the earliest of three geologic eras of the Phanerozoic Eon, spanning from roughly 541 to 252.2 million years ago (ICS, 2004). It is the longest of the Phanerozoic eras, and is subdivided into six geologic periods (from oldest to least old): the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian. The Paleozoic comes after the Neoproterozoic Era of the Proterozoic Eon, and is followed by the Mesozoic Era.
The Paleozoic was a time of dramatic geological, climatic, and evolutionary change. The Cambrian Period witnessed the most rapid and widespread diversification of life in Earth’s history, known as the Cambrian explosion, in which most modern phyla first appeared. Fish, arthropods, amphibians and reptiles all evolved during the Paleozoic. Life began in the ocean but eventually transitioned onto land, and by the late Paleozoic, it was dominated by various forms of organisms. Great forests of primitive plants covered the continents, many of which formed the coal beds of Europe and eastern North America. Towards the end of the era, large, sophisticated reptiles were dominant and the first modern plants (conifers) appeared.

The Paleozoic Era ended with the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history, the Permian–Triassic extinction event. The effects of this catastrophe were so devastating that it took life on land 30 million years into the Mesozoic to recover. Recovery of life in the sea may have been much faster.


In North America, the era began with deep sedimentary basins along the eastern, southeastern, and western sides of the continent, while the interior was dry land. As the era proceeded, the marginal seas periodically washed over the stable interior, leaving sedimentary deposits to mark their incursions. During the early part of the era, the area of exposed Precambrian, or shield, rocks in central Canada were eroding, supplying sediment to the basins from the interior. Beginning in the Ordovician Period, mountain building intermittently proceeded in the eastern part of the Appalachian region throughout the rest of the era, bringing in new sediments. Sediments washing from the Acadian Mountains filled the western part of the Appalachian basins to form the famous coal swamps of the Carboniferous Period. In North America carboniferous is not generally used instead the time is divided between Mississippian and Pennsylvanian period because of differences in the sedimentary rock deposited in this time. The Mississippian is characterized by limey sediments deposited in shallow seas, typically with abundant crinoidal fossils as in the Burlington fm. The Pennsylvanian typically is characterized by terrestrial sediments such as sands, shale and most importantly coal. Most of our oil and gas are obtained from Pennsylvanian sediments. Where this has been stripped, as in the Ozark domal region, oil is not typically available.

Paleoclimatic studies and evidence of glaciers indicate that central Africa was most likely in the polar regions during the early Paleozoic. During the early Paleozoic, the huge continent Gondwanaland had either formed or was forming. By mid-Paleozoic, the collision of North America and Europe produced the Acadian-Caledonian uplifts, and a subduction plate uplifted eastern Australia. By the late Paleozoic, continental collisions formed the supercontinent Pangaea and resulted in some of the great mountain chains, including the Appalachians, Urals, and mountains of Tasmania.

Tectonic activity

Land distribution early in the Paleozoic, around 540 Ma Author: Ron Blakey, NAU Geology

Geologically, the Paleozoic starts shortly after the breakup of a supercontinent called Pannotia. Throughout the early Paleozoic, the Earth’s landmass was broken up into a substantial number of continents. Towards the end of the era, the continents gathered together into a supercontinent called Pangaea, which included most of the Earth’s land area.


The Ordovician and Silurian periods were warm greenhouse periods, with the highest sea levels of the Paleozoic (200 m above today’s); the warm climate was interrupted only by a 30 million years cool period, the Early Palaeozoic Icehouse, culminating in the Hirnantian glaciation.
The early Cambrian climate was probably moderate at first, becoming warmer over the course of the Cambrian, as the second-greatest sustained sea level rise in the Phanerozoic got underway. However, as if to offset this trend, Gondwana moved south with considerable speed, so that, in Ordovician time, most of West Gondwana (Africa and South America) lay directly over the South Pole. The early Paleozoic climate was also strongly zonal, with the result that the “climate”, in an abstract sense became warmer, but the living space of most organisms of the time—the continental shelf marine environment—became steadily colder. However, Baltica (Northern Europe and Russia) and Laurentia (eastern North America and Greenland) remained in the tropical zone, while China and Australia lay in waters which were at least temperate. The Early Paleozoic ended, rather abruptly, with the short, but apparently severe, late Ordovician ice age. This cold spell caused the second-greatest mass extinction of Phanerozoic time. Over time, the warmer weather moved into the Paleozoic Era.

The middle Paleozoic was a time of considerable stability. Sea levels had dropped coincident with the ice age, but slowly recovered over the course of the Silurian and Devonian. The slow merger of Baltica and Laurentia, and the northward movement of bits and pieces of Gondwana created numerous new regions of relatively warm, shallow sea floor. As plants took hold on the continental margins, oxygen levels increased and carbon dioxide dropped, although much less dramatically. The north–south temperature gradient also seems to have moderated, or metazoan life simply became hardier, or both. At any event, the far southern continental margins of Antarctica and West Gondwana became increasingly less barren. The Devonian ended with a series of turnover pulses which killed off much of Middle Paleozoic vertebrate life, without noticeably reducing species diversity overall.

The late Paleozoic was a time which has left us a good many unanswered questions. The Mississippian began with a spike in atmospheric oxygen, while carbon dioxide plummeted to unheard-of lows. This destabilized the climate and led to one, and perhaps two, ice ages during the Carboniferous. These were far more severe than the brief Late Ordovician Ice; but, this time, the effects on world biota were inconsequential. By the Cisuralian, both oxygen and carbon dioxide had recovered to more normal levels. On the other hand, the assembly of Pangaea created huge arid inland areas subject to temperature extremes. The Lopingian is associated with falling sea levels, increased carbon dioxide and general climatic deterioration, culminating in the devastation of the Permian extinction.


An artist’s impression of early land plants

While macroscopic plant life appeared early in the Paleozoic and possibly late in the Neoproterozoic, it mostly remained aquatic until sometime in the Silurian and Devonian, when it began to transition onto dry land. Terrestrial flora reached its climax in the Carboniferous, when towering lycopsid rainforests dominated the tropical belt of Euramerica. Climate change caused the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse which fragmented this habitat, diminishing the diversity of plant life in the late Carboniferous and Permian.


A noteworthy feature of Paleozoic life is the sudden appearance of nearly all of the invertebrate animal phyla in great abundance at the beginning of the Cambrian. The first vertebrates appeared in the form of primitive fish, which greatly diversified in the Silurian and Devonian. The first animals to venture onto dry land were the arthropods. Some fish had lungs and strong, bony fins and could crawl onto the land also. The bones in their fins eventually evolved into legs and they became the first tetrapods. Amphibians were the dominant tetrapods until the mid-Carboniferous, when climate change greatly reduced their diversity. Later, reptiles prospered and continued to increase in number and variety by the late Permian.
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