Cenozoic era

Cenozoic era

Cenozoic era, last major division of geologic time (see Geologic Timescale, table) lasting from 65 million years ago to the present. The Cenozoic is divided into the Tertiary (from 65 million years ago until 2 million years ago) and Quaternary (2 million years ago to the present) periods. Early in the Cenozoic, Greenland began to separate from Europe; Antarctica and Australia, and Africa and India also separated. The great Alpine-Himalayan mountain systems were formed; rifting with associated volcanic activity occurred in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Antarctica. In the late Cenozoic, the Cascade Range of volcanoes extended from southern British Columbia to N California, and represented a new volcanic arc superimposed on older structures. The volcanic arc is still periodically active today. Following the disturbances of the late Mesozoic era, the geography of North America had by the beginning of the Cenozoic attained substantially its present form. The only areas subjected to inundation by shallow marine waters were the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and a small area on the Pactific coast. Most of today's common plants and insects can be recognized in early Cenozoic fossils. Modern grasses appeared in the mid-Cenozoic. The animal life of the Cenozoic was dominated by mammals, which were most numerous in the Tertiary period and declined, with the exception of a few specialized types, in the Quaternary period. Theories explaining the decline or extinction of mammals during the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs of the quaternary have ranged from a change in climate to the predation of humans. Cenozoic land mammals were never as large as the Mesozoic dinosaurs, but many were larger than today's mammals, and included beavers that grew to lengths of more than 7 ft (2 m), sloths as large as elephants, and birds up to 7 ft (2 m) in height. Around one million years ago, the ancestors of Homo sapiens, or modern humans, became dominant. Early humans are thought to have evolved in Africa during the Miocene and were widespread and accomplished toolmakers by the beginning of the Pleistocene; theory states that H. sapiens evolved in Asia and moved to Europe c.50,000 years ago, developed a form of agriculture in the Middle East c.10,000 years ago, and started writing and building the first cities c.4,000 years ago. See also geology.

The Cenozoic (also Caenozoic or Cainozoic) Era (meaning "new life" (Greek καινός (kainos), "new", and ζωή (zoe), "life"), is the most recent of the three classic geological eras and covers the period from 65.5 million years ago to the present. It is marked by the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous that saw the demise of the last non-avian dinosaurs and the end of the Mesozoic Era. The Cenozoic era is ongoing.


The Cenozoic Era is divided into two periods, the Paleogene and Neogene, and they are in turn divided into epochs. The Paleogene consists of the Paleocene, Eocene, and Oligocene epochs, and the Neogene consists of the Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene epochs, the last of which is ongoing. Historically, the Cenozoic has been divided into periods (or sub-eras) named the Tertiary (Paleocene through Pliocene) and Quaternary (Pleistocene and Holocene).


Geologically, the Cenozoic is the era when the continents moved into their current positions. Australia-New Guinea split from Gondwana and drifted north and, eventually, adjacent to 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 between 55 and 45 million years ago; Arabia collided with Eurasia, closing the Tethys ocean, around .


The Cenozoic Era has been a period of long-term cooling. In the early Cenozoic, particulate ejecta from the K-T boundary impact blocked incoming solar radiation . After the tectonic creation of Drake Passage, when Australia 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. Warm conditions returned in the Miocene due to uncovered gas hydrates releasing carbon dioxide. 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 Last Glacial Maximum.


The Cenozoic Era is the age of new life. During the Cenozoic, mammals diverged from a few small, simple, generalized forms into a diverse collection of terrestrial, marine, and flying animals. The Cenozoic is just as much the age of savannas, or the age of co-dependent flowering plants and insects. Birds also evolved substantially in the Cenozoic.

Monte Bolca is an important lagerstätte near Verona, Italy, containing excellently preserved fish and other fossils of Eocene age.

See also



  • British Caenozoic Fossils, 1975, The Natural History Museum, London.
  • Geologic Time, by Henry Roberts.

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