The dinosaurs were gone, and a new era dawned upon a devastated world, but a world that was still abundant with opportunity.
Gigantic marine reptiles no longer prowled the Earth’s oceans, and pterosaurs no longer fleeted through the skies. As the global climate recovered. Now was the time of the mammal.
Highlights of the Palaeogene
- Evolution of the first primates
- Himalayas form
- Grasslands expand globally
- First permanent polar ice sheets form
- Major impact event in North America
Only the Strongest Survive the Cretaceous-Palaeogene Impact Winter
Following the impact of a city-sized rock from outer space, our world was left reeling in the shadow of death and destruction. The start of the period was marked by a devastating impact winter that saw global temperatures plummet as dust kicked up into the atmosphere blocked much of the sunlight.
Almost nothing larger than a sheep survived, and as the last of the dinosaurs (and numerous other species) disappeared, only the smallest and most resilient scavengers and highly adaptable creatures managed to avoid succumbing to starvation or freezing to death.
Slowly but surely, life recovered in the form of a proliferation of mammals and birds as the climate warmed once again and sea levels dropped to create vast swathes of virgin land.
Mysterious Animals Radiate into Vacated Ecological Niches
Before the Palaeocene Epoch, mammals had remained small, the most successful being rodent-like creatures that evolved during the Jurassic.
During the Palaeocenethe very first primates, hoofed animals and proboscideans (elephants, mammoths and mastodons) appeared.
Mammals weren’t the only animal class exploiting the environmental niches left empty by the demise of the dinosaurs. Birds also started undergoing an unprecedented period of diversification throughout the Palaeocene. Among the most impressive were the huge flightless carnivorous birds, such as gastorinis, which lived in Europe while, in South America, the ten-foot-tall (3 metres) phorusrhacids, also suitably known as terror birds, ruled.
Early Ancestors to Many Common Mammals Appear
The Eocene is the second of the three epochs that make up the Palaeogene Period. Lasting from 56 to 33.9 million years ago, this is the time when many modern groups of mammals started appearing. Of particular significance were the appearance of perissodactyls (the order includes includes horses, rhinoceroses and tapirs) and artiodactyls (the order that includes giraffes, pigs, deer, sheep and cattle).
The first horse, hyracotherium, was a dog-sized grazing animal that lived some 56 million years ago.
Other perissodactyls that joined the earliest equine ancestors of the Eocene were the hyracodons, a mammalian family of hornless rhinoceroses that went extinct in the early Neogene Period. Fulfilling a similar ecological niche to that of horses and other grazing animals, these creatures enjoyed a vast geographic range spanning the entirety of Eurasia.
Another highly significant evolutionary event occurred during the Eocene, and that was the migration of certain mammals to the oceans. The first whales evolved from artiodactyls, an order of herbivorous hoofed animals. These cetacean ancestors started life exclusively on the land, eventually turning to coastal waters for sustenance. While the first ‘whales’ walked on four legs, their forelimbs turned to flippers to better adapt to an aquatic lifestyle. The earliest of these strange creatures, such as pakicetus, didn’t exactly resemble a modern whale but, by the end of the Eocene, cetaceans had become fully aquatic.
Global Cooling Forms New Environmental Niches
While the Eocene Epoch was a time of global warming and vast swathes of subtropical forest, the climate started to change dramatically in the Oligocene. So profound were the changes in fact that it lead to a mass-extinction event. Though minor compared to that which claimed the dinosaurs, the Eocene-Oligocene extinction event was no doubt greatly accentuated by global cooling.
The abrupt shift in the evolution of Earth’s climate at the end of the Eocene was caused by volcanic activity and more impact events.
Until the Oligocene Epoch, Antarctica was largely free of any permanent ice. Until about 52 million years ago, the Antarctic Peninsula was so warm so that subtropical plants like palm trees could grow there. However, after the intense phase of global warming in the early Eocene, the global climate started to cool rapidly. For the first time in hundreds of millions of years, the South Pole froze over, and permanent ice sheets covered Antarctica.
As Antarctica changed from a lush forested land into an icy desert, the oceans cooled globally which, in turn, would have led to a significant drop in global temperatures. Consequently, grasses, which are more tolerant of lower temperatures, expanded across much of the globe effectively forming the first savannahs and steppes.
Open Landscapes Herald a New Land of Giants
Throughout the Oligocene, mammals dominated almost every terrestrial environmental niche on Earth. Sprawling open landscapes, similar in many ways to the steppes found in Central Asia and Mongolia today, formed an entirely new biome that had never existed before. This allowed mammals to grow larger and more diverse than they ever had. A new land of giants formed among the wide-open spaces of Eurasia, North America and beyond.
It was during the Oligocene that the largest terrestrial mammal that has ever walked the Earth evolved. Paraceratherium was a hyracodont that dwarfed even an African elephant. This colossal titan was distantly related to modern-day rhinoceroses, though it stood well over three times higher and may have weighed up to 30 tonnes. Like most hyracodonts, it didn’t have horns, instead relying on its immense size for protection.
While enormous, paraceratherium was just a peaceful grazing animal found across Eurasia. Some of its contemporaries, however, were every bit as terrifying as the carnivorous dinosaurs. One of the most successful apex predators of the Oligocene was the aptly-named hell pig. Formally known as entelodonts, they were artiodactyls but not closely related to pigs. The largest of this diverse order was the formidable daeodon, meaning ‘dreadful teeth’. The hulking boar-like omnivore stood up to six feet (1.8 metres) tall at the shoulder.
Another family of predators that thrived during the Oligocene were amphicyonids. Also known as bear dogs, the largest weighed up to 1,300 lb (600 kg). As the name suggests, they superficially resembled something of a cross between a dog and a bear. However, while they share the same order, they were not otherwise related, instead forming a now long-extinct family of carnivores.
The first true cats also appeared towards the end of the Oligocene. Proailurus, meaning ‘first cat’, lived some 25 million years ago throughout Eurasia, and was little larger than a domestic cat. It evolved down a separate path to that of the closely related and now-extinct nimravids, or false sabre-tooth cats.
Having undergone extensive global cooling throughout the Oligocene, the following Neogene Period would see the world become remarkably like the one we know today. Primates, and animals would start to resemble their modern counterparts.