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AbstractThis page describes the Carboniferous Period, including stratigraphy, paleogeography, and famous lagerstätten, followed by a sketched outline of some of the major evolutionary events.
Keywords: Carboniferous, Carboniferous biota, fossil record, evolution
The Carboniferous was the first system to receive a name that is still in official use today. The name was applied to coal-bearing rocks in England and Wales by William Conybeare and William Phillips in 1822.
Subdivisions of the Carboniferous have varied over time and between regions: In eastern Europe and Asia, Lower, Middle and Upper divisions were commonly used; in western Europe, just Lower and Upper; and, in North America, “Carboniferous” was typically not used at all, being replaced with Mississippian (lower) and Pennsylvanian (upper) Systems instead.
The current international convention is to recognise the Carboniferous System (Period) as being divided into Mississippian and Pennsylvanian Series (Epochs).
(After Ogg et al. 2008, p. 73.)
Lower (Devonian–Carboniferous) Boundary
The GSSP defining the the base of the Carboniferous (i.e., the Devonian-Carboniferous Boundary) was established in 1991 (Paproth et al. 1991) at La Serre, France, where it is set at the first appearance datum (FAD) of the conodont Siphonodella sulcata. Subsequent research, however, has revealed stratigraphic problems with this datum, and it is now relised that this horizon cannot be correlated with precision at present.
The GSSP is at the base of Bed 89 in Trench E at La Serre. The La Serre section is located in the southeastern Montagne Noire, Departement Hérault, District of Cabrières, in southern France. Artificial trench E, which averages 80cm in depth on the southern slope of La Serre Hill, is about 125m south of the hilltop (252m), about 525m east of La Roquette farmhouse, 2.5km northeast of the village of Fontès (sheet 1:25,000 Pézenas XXVI/44, 1-2, x = 682.55, y = 140.12).
Sedimentology: The rocks in trench E’ are part of a geologic unit named “Klippen of Cabrières”. The youngest Devonian and earliest Carboniferous beds are characterized by a sequence of predominantly biodetrital oolitic limestone within a pelagic matrix of shale and cephalopod bearing calcilutites.
Primary Markers: First appearance of the conodont Siphonodella sulcata within the evolutionary lineage from Siphonodella praesulcata to Siphonodella sulcata at the base of Bed 89 in trench E’.
Secondary Markers: The trilobites Belgibole abruptirhachis, Archegonus (Phillibole) and Carbonocoryphe also occur in Bed 89. Some of these other taxa are especially important at other Locations around the world. For example, Belgibole abruptirhachis occurs immediately above the Hangenberg Schiefer interval in various cephalopod-bearing sections from the Renish Slate Mountains (Germany), the Holy Cross Mountains (Poland) and the Carnic Alps (Austria). See Paproth et al. 1991.
Upper (Carboniferous–Permian) Boundary
The GSSP defining the the base of the Permian (i.e., the Carboniferous-Permian Boundary) was established in 1998 (Davydov et al. 1998) at Aidaralash Creek, Kazakhstan, at the first appearance of the “isolated-nodular” morphotype of the conodont Streptognathodus “wabaunsensis”.
Current age calibrations place the base of the Carboniferous and Mississippian at 358.9 ±0.4 Ma, the base of the Pennsylvanian at 323.2 ±0.4 Ma, and the base of the Permian (i.e., the top of the Carboniferous and Pennsylvanian) at 298.9 ±0.15 Ma (Cohen et al. 2015). Thus the Mississippian is approximately 36 my in duration, the Pennsylvanian approximately 24 my, and the whole Carboniferous Period approximately 60 my.
Major Tectonic EventsMajor episodes of mountain building were associated with the assembly of Pangea. Both the Appalachians and the precursor ranges of the Rocky Mountains in North America began forming at this time.
Land and SeaAt the beginning of the Carboniferous Period, the supercontinent of Pangea was forming from the collision of Laurentia (North america and Europe) and northern Gondwana (Fig. 1). “Before the collision, Gondwana had rotated clockwise, so that the its eastern part (India, Australia, and Antarctica) moved south while its western part (South America and Africa) moved north. This rotation opened a new ocean, the Tethys Ocean, in the east and closed an old one, the Rheic, in the west” (Palmer 1999, p. 26).
The assembly of Pangea concentrated almost the entire landmass of the Earth into one hemisphere; the Panthallassic Ocean occupied almost the entire opposite hemisphere.
In general, sea levels rose through the early part of the Carboniferous, receding again in the later part.
ClimateThe global climate cooled from the humid, hothouse conditions of the preceding Devonian Period. By the mid-Carboniferous it had become markedly seasonal and polar icecaps were forming. By the end of the period, aridity had increased and glaciation had become extensive.
Atmospheric oxygen increased to perhaps 35% towards the end of the Period. Carbon dioxide levels were also high by today’s standards.
IntroductionThe seas were dominated by sharks and bony (teleost) fishes. On land, arthropods became very large, and tetrapods diversified.
“In Pennsylvanian [= Late Carboniferous] times, there was a dramatic change in vegetation. In low paleolatitudes, the very first tropical rain forests appeared: the so-called ‘Coal Forests’ of europe, North America and China (known as the Amerosinian Palaeokingdom...), so named because of the vast reserves of coal-forming peat that were laid down by them…. These forests were dominated by the giant lycophytes…, which were perfectly adapted to the wetland habitats that existed over much of the then tropics” (Cleal & Thomas 2009, p. 205-206).
“The fossil record of early tetrapods has been increased recently by new finds from the Devonian period and mid–late Early Carboniferous period. Despite this, understanding of tetrapod evolution has been hampered by a 20-million-year gap (‘Romer’s Gap’) that covers the crucial, early period when many key features of terrestrial tetrapods were acquired” (Clack 2002b, p. 72). “This period between the end Devonian and the mid-Viséan represents the time when tetrapods underwent a major diversification and acquired true terrestriality” (Clack & Finney 1999).
“The first half of the Mississippian or Early Carboniferous (Tournaisian to mid-Viséan), an interval of about 20 million years, has become known as “Romer’s Gap” because of its poor tetrapod record. Recent discoveries emphasise the differences between pre-“Gap” Devonian tetrapods, unambiguous stem-group members retaining numerous “fish” characteristics indicative of an at least partially aquatic lifestyle, and post-“Gap” Carboniferous tetrapods, which are far more diverse and include fully terrestrial representatives of the main crown-group lineages. It seems that “Romer’s Gap” coincided with the cladogenetic events leading to the origin of the tetrapod crown group” (Chen et al. 2018, Abstract).
The only articulated skeleton of a tetrapod yet found from the Tournaisian epoch (354–344 Ma) is Pederpes, “the earliest-known tetrapod to show the beginnings of terrestrial locomotion and was at least functionally pentadactyl” (Clack 2002b, Abstract). With its later American sister-genus, Whatcheeria, it represents the next most primitive tetrapod clade after those of the Late Devonian, bridging the temporal, morphological and phylogenetic gaps that have hitherto separated Late Devonian and mid-Carboniferous tetrapod faunas” (Clack 2002b, p. 72).
Chen et al. (2018) describe a partial right jaw ramus of a new tetrapod, Tantallognathus woodi, from the late Tournaisian or early Viséan of Scotland. The large and robust jaw exhibits a distinctive combination of characters. A phylogenetic analysis places Tantallognathus in the upper part of the tetrapod stem group, above Pederpes and Whatcheeria.
“Traditionally the name ‘Amphibia’ has been employed more broadly to refer to all tetrapods that are not amniotes, but this is rather misleading because most of these forms were not similar to extant amphibians and may have been different biologically. Among the Paleozoic and early Mesozoic ‘amphibians,’ most authors have distinguished two principal groups – Lepospondyli and Temnospondylli. The exclusively Paleozoic lepospondyls comprise a heterogeneous assemblage of small forms with holospondylous vertebrae. By contrast, temnospondyls are a remarkably diverse group that ranged from the Mississippian to the Early Cretaceous and include the stem forms of at least frogs and salamanders. … During the Triassic, temnospondyls were represented by a variety of lineages and were semi-aquatic or fully aquatic carnivores in many ecosystems. Most Triassic temnospondyls are referred to the Stereospondlyi,” a subgroup of which is the Capitosauroidea. Capitosauroids “include often large forms with a dorsoventrally flattened truck and head, and an elongated snout, which lends them a superficially crocodile-like appearance. A characteristic feature … is the presence of a deeply incised otic notch, or opening (which presumably accommodated the tympanic membrane), along the posterior margin of the skull roof” (Sues & Fraser 2010, p. 12).
Early tetrapods evolved the amniote egg, thereby becoming truly terrestrial (Palmer 1999, p. 81).
LagerstättenMazon Creek: Late Carboniferous Mazon Creek Illinois; deltaic and near-shore marine; 318 Ma
Bear Gulch: Late Early Carboniferous Bear Gulch Montana; estuarine; notable for fish and arthropod fossils
Joggins: Nova Scotia; includes representatives of one of the oldest known reptils; Grey & Finkel 2011
Loch Humphrey Burn: Early Carboniferous Loch Humphrey Burn Southern Scotland; an exceptionally well-preserved Lower Carboniferous terrestrial ecosystem, containing several successive plant bearing horizons within a volcanic terrain.
‘Shrimp Beds’: Early Carboniferous Scottish ‘Shrimp Beds’ Scotland; crustaceans, conodont animals, tomopterid worms, fish; Briggs & Clarkson 1983, 1985, Briggs et al. 1991
East Kirkton: Early Carboniferous East Kirkton Scotland; hot spring deposits; plants; arthropods (scorpions); amphibians and reptiles; Rolfe 1988, 1994
New Zealand Occurrences
For most of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic, the rocks which would become the basement rocks of the Zealandia continent formed part of the Pacific margin of Gondwana, flanking Australia and Antarctica (Edbrooke 2017; Strogen et al. 2017). During this time, the Zealandia basement developed mainly by subduction-driven, episodic accretion.
“In an initial period of growth, from Cambrian to Carboniferous time, the oldest sedimentary rocks known in mainland New Zealand were deposited and acreted…. Intrusion of granitic rocks occurred intermittently but mainly during Late Devonian and Early Carboniferous time” (Edbrooke 2017, p. 31).
Carboniferous rocks are almost unknown in New Zealand. Only four isolated conodont faunas having been reported (Campbell in Cooper 2004, p. 61), accompanied in one case by rare fish scales (Jenkins & Jenkins 1971).
Briggs, D.E.G.; Clark, N.D.L.; Clarkson, E.N.K. 1991: The Granton shrimp-bed, Edinburgh – a Lower Carboniferous Konservat-Lagerstätte. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Earth Sciences 82: 65-86.
Briggs, D.E.G.; Clarkson, E.N.K. 1983: The Lower Carboniferous Granton ‘Shrimp-Bed’ Edinburgh. Special Papers in Palaeontology 30: 161-177.
— 1985: The Lower Carboniferous Shrimp Tealliocaris from Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Earth Sciences 76: 173-201.
Chen, D.; Alavi, Y.; Brazeau, M.D.; Blom, H.; Millward, D.; Ahlberg, P.E. 2018: A partial lower jaw of a tetrapod from “Romer’s Gap”. Earth and Environmental Sciences Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 108: 55-65.
Clack, J.A. 2002: An early tetrapod from ‘Romer’s Gap’. Nature 418: 72-76.
Clack, J.A.; Finney, S.M. 1999: The First Articulated Tournaisian Tetrapod: an Update. Palaeontological Association 43rd Annual Meeting, University of Manchester, 19-22 December 1999 (Poster Presentation). .
Cleal, C.J.; Thomas, B.A. 2009: An Introduction to Plant Fossils. Cambridge University Press: 1-248.
Cohen, K.M.; Finney, S.C.; Gibbard, P.L.; Fan, J.X. 2015: The ICS international chronostratigraphic chart v 2015/01. Episodes 36: 199-204.
Conybeare,W.D.; Phillips,W. 1822: Outlines of the geology of England and Wales, with an introduction compendium of the general principles of that science, and comparative views of the structure of foreign countries. Part 1. William Phillips, London: 1-563.
Cooper, R.A. (ed.) 2004: The New Zealand geologic timescale. Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Monograph 22: 1-284.
Davydov, V.I.; Glenister, B.F.; Spinosa, C.; Ritter, S.M.; Chernykh, V.V.; Wardlaw, B.R.; Snyder, W.S. 1998: Proposal of Aidaralash as Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) for base of the Permian System. Episodes 21 (1): 11-18.
Edbrooke, S.W. 2017: The geological map of New Zealand. GNS Science Geological Map 2: 1-183.
Grey, M.; Finkel, Z.V. 2011: The Joggins Fossil Cliffs UNESCO World Heritage site: a review of recent research. Atlantic Geology 47: 185-200.
Jenkins, D.G.; Jenkins, B.H. 1971: First diagnostic Carboniferous fossils from New Zealand. Nature 233: 117-118.
Ogg, J.G.; Ogg, G.; Gradstein, F.M. 2008: The concise geologic time scale. Cambridge University Press: 1-177.
Palmer , D. 1999: Atlas of the prehistoric world. Marshall Publishing: 1-224.
Paproth, E., Feist, R., and Flaijs, G. 1991: Decision on the Devonian-Carboniferous boundary stratotype. Episodes 14 (4): 331-336.
Rolfe, W.D.I. 1988: Early life on land; the East Kirkton discoveries. Earth Science Conservation 25: 22-28.
Rolfe, W.D.I.; Durant, G.P.; Baird, W.J.; et al. 1994: The East Kirkton Limestone, Viséan, West Lothian, Scotland: an introduction and stratigraphy. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Earth Sciences 84: 177-188.
Strogen, D.P.; Seebeck, H.; Nicol, A.; King, P.R. 2017: Two-phase Cretaceous–Paleocene rifting in the Taranaki Basin region, New Zealand; implications for Gondwana breakup. Journal of the Geological Society, London 174: 929-946.
Sues, H.-D.; Fraser, N.C. 2010: Triassic life on land. Columbia University Press: 1-236.
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