The Cenozoic Era (also Cænozoic, Caenozoic or Cainozoic; meaning “new life”, from Greek καινός kainos “new”, and ζωή zoe “life”) is the current and most recent of the three Phanerozoic geological eras, following the Mesozoic Era and covering the period from 66 million years ago to the present.
The era began in the wake of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (K-Pg event) at the end of the Cretaceous that saw the demise of the last non-avian dinosaurs (as well as many other terrestrial and marine flora and fauna) at the end of the Mesozoic. The Cenozoic is also known as the Age of Mammals, because the extinction of many groups allowed mammals to greatly diversify.
Early in the Cenozoic, following the K-Pg event, the planet was dominated by relatively small fauna, including small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. From a geological perspective, it did not take long for mammals and birds to greatly diversify in the absence of the large reptiles that had dominated during the Mesozoic. Some birds grew larger than the average human. This group became known as the “terror birds,” and were formidable predators. Mammals came to occupy almost every available niche (both marine and terrestrial), and some also grew very large, attaining sizes not seen in most of today’s mammals.
Climate-wise, the Earth had begun a drying and cooling trend, culminating in the glaciations of the Pleistocene Epoch, and partially offset by the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. The continents also began looking roughly familiar at this time and moved into their current positions.
The Cenozoic is divided into three periods: The Paleogene, Neogene, and Quaternary; and seven epochs: The Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene. The Quaternary Period was officially recognized by the International Commission on Stratigraphy in June 2009, and the former Tertiary Period was officially disused in 2004. The common use of epochs during the Cenozoic helps paleontologists better organize and group the many significant events that occurred during this comparatively short interval of time. There is also more detailed knowledge of this era than any other because of the relatively young strata associated with it.
Geologically, the Cenozoic is the era when the continents moved into their current positions. Australia-New Guinea, having split from Pangea during the early Cretaceous, drifted north and, eventually, collided with South-east Asia; Antarctica moved into its current position over the South Pole; the Atlantic Ocean widened and, later in the era, South America became attached to North America.
India collided with Asia 55 to 45 million years ago; Arabia collided with Eurasia, closing the Tethys ocean, around 35 million years ago.
**The concepts of Tertiary and Quaternary have an interesting history. In the 1760s and 1770s a geologist named Giovanni Arduino was studying the rocks and minerals in Tuscany. He classified mountains according to the type of rocks that he found in them. Unfossiliferous schists, granites, and basalts (all volcanic rocks) that formed the cores of large mountains he called Primitive. Fossil-rich rocks of limestone and clay that were found on the flanks of mountains over the Primitive rocks were called Secondary. Finally, there were another group of fossiliferous rocks of limestones and sandstones lying over the Secondary rocks and forming the foothills of the mountains that Anduino called Tertiary. So at first, Tertiary referred to a certain type of rock found in the area of Tuscany. But later, geologists used the fossils found in the Tertiary rocks there to recognize rocks of the same age elsewhere. Rocks with the same species of fossils were the same age.
Extensive Tertiary age rocks were recognized in the Paris Basin, which is the area around Paris, France. In the 1820s and 1830s Charles Lyell, a noted English geologist who had a great influence on Charles Darwin, subdivided the Tertiary rocks of the Paris Basin on their fossils. Lyell came up with an ingenious idea. He noticed that the rocks at the top of the section had a very high percentage of fossils of living mollusc species. Those at the bottom of the section had very few living forms. He deduced that this difference was because of the extinction of older forms and the evolution of living forms during the time that the rocks were being deposited. He divided the Tertiary rocks into three sub-ages: the Pliocene, the Miocene, and the Eocene. 90% of the fossil molluscs in Pliocene rocks were living today. In the Miocene rocks, only 18% of the molluscs were of living species, and in Eocene rocks, only 9.5%.
These subdivisions of the Tertiary have been correlated around the world using the fossil species in them. Rocks with the same species as Lyell’s Eocene, are considered to be the same age as those in the Paris Basin. The same goes for the other subdivisions. Some time later it was noted that in areas other than the Paris Basin, there were rocks that seemed to be from time periods that were not represented in Lyell’s sequence. This was because during those periods there had been no deposition in what would later be the Paris Basin. These two periods, later designated Oligocene and Paleocene, were inserted into the Tertiary in their proper places.
The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum of 55.8 million years ago was a significant global warming event. However, since the Azolla event of 49 million years ago, the Cenozoic Era has been a period of long-term cooling. After the tectonic creation of Drake Passage, when South America fully detached from Antarctica during the Oligocene, the climate cooled significantly due to the advent of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current which brought cool deep Antarctic water to the surface. The cooling trend continued in the Miocene, with relatively short warmer periods. When South America became attached to North America creating the Isthmus of Panama, the Arctic region cooled due to the strengthening of the Humboldt and Gulf Stream currents, eventually leading to the glaciations of the Quaternary ice age, the current interglacial of which is the Holocene Epoch.
During the Cenozoic, mammals proliferated from a few small, simple, generalized forms into a diverse collection of terrestrial, marine, and flying animals, giving this period its other name, the Age of Mammals, despite the fact that birds still outnumbered mammals two to one. The Cenozoic is just as much the age of savannas, the age of co-dependent flowering plants and insects, and the age of birds. Grass also played a very important role in this era, shaping the evolution of the birds and mammals that fed on it. One group that diversified significantly in the Cenozoic as well were the snakes. Evolving in the Cenozoic, the variety of snakes increased tremendously, resulting in many colubrids, following the evolution of their current primary prey source, the rodents.
In the earlier part of the Cenozoic, the world was dominated by the gastornid birds, terrestrial crocodiles like Pristichampsus, and a handful of primitive large mammal groups like uintatheres, mesonychids, and pantodonts. But as the forests began to recede and the climate began to cool, other mammals took over. The Cenozoic is full of mammals both strange and familiar, including chalicotheres, creodonts, whales, primates, entelodonts, saber-toothed cats, mastodons and mammoths, three-toed horses, giant rhinoceros like Indricotherium, and brontotheres.
Note : The above story is based on materials provided by Wikipedia
** Stratigraphy story is based on materials provided by University of California Museum of Paleontology