Cretaceous period

Cretaceous period

Cretaceous period, third and last period of the Mesozoic era of geologic time (see Geologic Timescale, table), lasting from approximately 144 to 65 million years ago. The Cretaceous was marked, in both North America and Europe, by extensive submergences of the continents. Changes both in the earth's surface and in its flora and fauna brought the Mesozoic to a close.

Historical Geology of the Period

The Lower Cretaceous Period

At the beginning of the Lower Cretaceous in North America, the Mexican Sea of the late Jurassic period spread over Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and parts of Arizona, Kansas, and Colorado. Deposits from this inland sea, known as the Comanchean Sea, were chiefly limestone (up to 1,500 ft/457 m thick in Texas) but some continental sediments (i.e., sandstone, shale, and conglomerate) mark the reemergence of land, which brought the Lower Cretaceous to a close. The Comanchean Sea was probably separated by a land barrier from contemporaneous seas in the California areas, where 26,000 ft (7,925 m) of Shastan shales, with sandstone and thin limestone, were laid down. The sediments were derived by rapid erosion from the recently elevated Sierra Nevada and Klamath mts. In Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia the Kootenai deposits of sandstone and sandy shale, which contain workable deposits of good coal, were formed; along the Atlantic coast the unconsolidated sandy clay, gravel, and sand of the Potomac series were deposited.

The Lower Cretaceous opened in NW Europe with the deposition of a continental and freshwater formation, the Wealden sand and clay, best displayed in England. The sea, meanwhile, expanded from the Mediterranean, finally overlaying successive Wealden strata with limestone. There was at the same time an extensive sea in N Europe. At the close of the Lower Cretaceous, there was some recession of the seas; by the Upper Cretaceous, the great transgression of seas submerged lands that had been open since the Paleozoic.

The Upper Cretaceous Period

The Upper Cretaceous opened in W North America with the deposition of continental sands (now the Dakota sandstone), which, however, were covered by the ensuing rise of the Colorado Sea. The Colorado Sea was the greatest of the North American Mesozoic seas and extended all the way from Mexico up into the Arctic, covering most of central North America. The Colorado deposits were composed chiefly of shales, limestone, and some chalk in Kansas and South Dakota. Slight shifting of the sea was followed by the deposition of the Montana shale and sandstone and then by withdrawal of the sea. Near the end of the Upper Cretaceous, conditions in the west were similar to those of the Carboniferous period in other regions; swamps and bogs were formed that later became valuable deposits of coal.

At the close of the Cretaceous the Laramide revolution occurred—at least two different epochs of mountain building and one of relative quiet. In this disturbance the Rockies and the E Andes were first elevated, and there were extensive flows of lava. The Appalachians, which had been reduced almost to base level by erosion, were rejuvenated, and the seas retreated from all parts of the continent. The intermittent character of the Laramide disturbance makes difficult the demarcation of the Mesozoic and the succeeding Cenozoic era.

The striking feature of the European Upper Cretaceous are great chalk deposits from small carbonate-bearing marine algae and calcareous fauna, now exposed in the cliffs of the English Channel. In India the late Upper Cretaceous was marked by an overflow of lava in the Deccan plateau. The area covered by igneous rocks dating from this period now comprises over 200,000 sq mi (518,000 sq km) and was formerly much larger, having been reduced by erosion. Near Mumbai the formation is 10,000 ft (3,000 m) thick.

Movement of the Continents

During the Cretaceous period the massive continents of Gondwanaland and Laurasia continued to separate. South America and Africa had separated, with the consequent widening of the S Atlantic. The N Atlantic continued to expand, although it appears that Europe, Greenland, and North America were still connected. Madagascar had separated from Africa, while India was still drifting northward toward Asia. The Tethys Sea was disappearing as Africa moved north toward Eurasia. Antarctica and Australia had yet to separate.

Evolution of Plant and Animal Life

The Lower Cretaceous is characterized by a revolution in the plant life, with the sudden appearance of flowering plants (angiosperms) such as the ancestors of the beech, fig, magnolia, and sassafras. By the end of the Cretaceous such plants became dominant. Willow, elm, grape, laurel, birch, oak, and maple also made their appearance, along with grass and the sequoias of California. Closely associated with the angiosperms were insects, including a form of the dragonfly, and most were similar to today's insects. This prepared the way for the increase in mammals in the late Cenozoic. The marine invertebrates of the Cretaceous included nautiluses, barnacles, lobsters, crabs, sea urchins, ammonites, and foraminifers. Reptiles reached their zenith, including the dinosaurs Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus), and Iguanodon, and ranged from herbivores to carnivores. Flying reptiles such as the pterosaurs were highly developed, while in the sea there were ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs. Other reptiles living in this period include crocodiles and giant turtles; snakes and lizards made their first appearance at this time. True mammals, which had already appeared in the Triassic period, were rare, as the Cretaceous reptiles dominated.

The climate of the Cretaceous was apparently fairly mild and uniform, but it is possible that toward the end of the period some variant zones of climate had appeared, making the overall climate cooler. Such changes, along with changes in both the earth's surface and its flora and fauna, brought the Mesozoic to a close.

By the end of the Cretaceous, about 75% of all species, including marine, freshwater, and terrestrial organisms, became extinct. The rather abrupt disappearance of Cretaceous life remains a mystery; similar mass extinctions have occurred at other periods in the earth's history. Theories for the extinctions include one or a mixture of the following: drastic cooling of the globe, retreat of the seas, breakup of the continents (see continental drift), biological disease, reversals of the earth's magnetic field, or a change in atmospheric carbon dioxide and oxygen. Another popular theory was introduced in 1980 by Luis Alvarez and colleagues at the Univ. of California. Alvarez proposed that the earth was struck by an asteroid or comet about 6 mi (10 km) in diameter around 65 million years ago. Such an impact (or collection of impacts) would spread dust into the atmosphere, suppressing photosynthesis and changing the food chain. Evidence for an impact includes an anomalous iridium layer, typical of meteorites, and some probable impact craters dated to the late Cretaceous. Other scientists have proposed that the cause of the final Cretaceous extinction was the huge volcanic eruptions that created the lava flows of the Deccan Traps in what is now India. One model has put these two theories together, hypothesizing that shock waves from the impact of a large asteroid moved through the earth, shaking the earth's crust and triggering or intensifying the volcanic events.

The Cretaceous (, usually abbreviated 'K' for its German translation "Kreide") is a geologic period and system, reaching from the end of the Jurassic Period, ( million years ago (Ma) to the beginning of the Paleocene Period,  Ma. It is the youngest geological period of the Mesozoic, and at 80 million years long, the longest period of the Phanerozoic. The end of the Cretaceous defines the boundary between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.

The Cretaceous (from Latin creta meaning 'chalk' ) as a separate period was first defined by a Belgian geologist Jean d'Omalius d'Halloy in 1822, using strata in the Paris Basin and named for the extensive beds of chalk (calcium carbonate deposited by the shells of marine invertebrates, principally coccoliths), found in the upper Cretaceous of continental Europe and the British Isles (including the White Cliffs of Dover).

Dating

As with other older geologic periods, the rock beds that define the Cretaceous are well identified but the exact dates of the period's start and end are uncertain by a few million years. No great extinction or burst of diversity separated the Cretaceous from the Jurassic. However, the end of the period is most sharply defined, being placed at an iridium-rich layer found worldwide that is believed to be associated with the Chicxulub impact crater in Yucatan and the Gulf of Mexico. This layer has been tightly dated at 65.5 Ma. This bolide collision is probably responsible for the major, extensively-studied Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event.

Divisions

The Cretaceous is usually separated into Early and Late Cretaceous Epochs. The faunal stages from youngest to oldest are listed below; time is referred to as early or late, and the corresponding rocks are referred to as lower or upper:
Upper/Late Cretaceous
Maastrichtian (70.6 ± 0.6 – 65.8 ± 0.3 Ma)
Campanian (83.5 ± 0.7 – 70.6 ± 0.6 Ma)
Santonian (85.8 ± 0.7 – 83.5 ± 0.7 Ma)
Coniacian (89.3 ± 1.0 – 85.8 ± 0.7 Ma)
Turonian (93.5 ± 0.8 – 89.3 ± 1.0 Ma)
Cenomanian (99.6 ± 0.9 – 93.5 ± 0.8 Ma)
 
Lower/Early Cretaceous
Albian (112.0 ± 1.0 – 99.6 ± 0.9 Ma)
Aptian (125.0 ± 1.0 – 112.0 ± 1.0 Ma)
Barremian (130.0 ± 1.5 – 125.0 ± 1.0 Ma)
Hauterivian (136.4 ± 2.0 – 130.0 ± 1.5 Ma)
Valanginian (140.2 ± 3.0 – 136.4 ± 2.0 Ma)
Berriasian (145.5 ± 4.0 – 140.2 ± 3.0 Ma)

Paleogeography

During the Cretaceous, the late Paleozoic - early Mesozoic supercontinent of Pangaea completed its breakup into present day continents, although their positions were substantially different at the time. As the Atlantic Ocean widened, the convergent-margin orogenies that had begun during the Jurassic continued in the North American Cordillera, as the Nevadan orogeny was followed by the Sevier and Laramide orogenies.

Though Gondwana was still intact in the beginning of the Cretaceous, it broke up as South America, Antarctica and Australia rifted away from Africa (though India and Madagascar remained attached to each other); thus, the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans were newly formed. Such active rifting lifted great undersea mountain chains along the welts, raising eustatic sea levels worldwide. To the north of Africa the Tethys Sea continued to narrow. Broad shallow seas advanced across central North America (the Western Interior Seaway) and Europe, then receded late in the period, leaving thick marine deposits sandwiched between coal beds. At the peak of the Cretaceous transgression, one-third of Earth's present land area was submerged.

The Cretaceous is justly famous for its chalk; indeed, more chalk formed in the Cretaceous than in any other period in the Phanerozoic. Mid-ocean ridge activity — or rather, the circulation of seawater through the enlarged ridges — enriched the oceans in calcium; this made the oceans more saturated, as well as increased the bioavailability of the element for calcareous nanoplankton. These widespread carbonates and other sedimentary deposits make the Cretaceous rock record especially fine. Famous formations from North America include the rich marine fossils of Kansas's Smoky Hill Chalk Member and the terrestrial fauna of the late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation. Other important Cretaceous exposures occur in Europe (e.g., the Weald) and China (the Yixian Formation). In the area that is now India, massive lava beds called the Deccan Traps were erupted in the very late Cretaceous and early Paleocene.

Climate

The Berriasian epoch showed a cooling trend that had been seen in the last epoch of the Jurassic. There is evidence that snowfalls were common in the higher latitudes and the tropics became wetter than during the Triassic and Jurassic. Glaciation was however restricted to alpine glaciers on some high-latitude mountains, though seasonal snow may have existed further south.

After the end of the Berriasian, however, temperatures increased again, and these conditions were almost constant until the end of the period. This trend was due to intense volcanic activity which produced large quantities of carbon dioxide. The development of a number of mantle plumes across the widening mid-ocean ridges further pushed sea levels up, so that large areas of the continental crust were covered with shallow seas. The Tethys Sea connecting the tropical oceans east to west also helped in warming the global climate. Warm-adapted plant fossils are known from localities as far north as Alaska and Greenland, while dinosaur fossils have been found within 15 degrees of the Cretaceous south pole.

A very gentle temperature gradient from the equator to the poles meant weaker global winds, contributing to less upwelling and more stagnant oceans than today. This is evidenced by widespread black shale deposition and frequent anoxic events. Sediment cores show that tropical sea surface temperatures may have briefly been as warm as 42 °C (107 °F), 17 °C (31 °F) warmer than at present, and that they averaged around 37 °C (99 °F). Meanwhile deep ocean temperatures were as much as 15 to 20 °C (27 to 36 °F) higher than today's.

Life

Plants

Flowering plants (angiosperms) spread during this period, although they did not become predominant until the Campanian stage near the end of the epoch. Their evolution was aided by the appearance of bees; in fact angiosperms and insects are a good example of coevolution. The first representatives of many leafy trees, including figs, planes and magnolias, appeared in the Cretaceous. At the same time, some earlier Mesozoic gymnosperms like Conifers continued to thrive; pehuéns (Monkey Puzzle trees, Araucaria) and other conifers being notably plentiful and widespread, although other gymnosperm taxa like Bennettitales died out before the end of the period.

Terrestrial fauna

On land, mammals were a small and still relatively minor component of the fauna. The fauna was dominated by archosaurian reptiles, especially dinosaurs, which were at their most diverse. Pterosaurs were common in the early and middle Cretaceous, but as the Cretaceous proceeded they faced growing competition from the adaptive radiation of birds, and by the end of the period only two highly specialised families remained.

The Liaoning lagerstätte (Chaomidianzi formation) in China provides a glimpse of life in the Early Cretaceous, where preserved remains of numerous types of small dinosaurs, birds, and mammals have been found. The coelurosaur dinosaurs found there represent types of the group maniraptora, which is transitional between dinosaurs and birds, and are notable for the presence of hair-like feathers.

During the Cretaceous, insects began to diversify, and the oldest known ants, termites and some lepidopterans, akin to butterflies and moths, appeared. Aphids, grasshoppers, and gall wasps appeared.

Marine fauna

In the seas, rays, modern sharks and teleosts became common. Marine reptiles included ichthyosaurs in the early and middle of the Cretaceous, plesiosaurs throughout the entire period, and mosasaurs in the Late Cretaceous.

Baculites, a genus of straight-shelled form of ammonite, flourished in the seas. The Hesperornithiformes were flightless, marine diving birds that swam like grebes. Globotruncanid Foraminifera and echinoderms such as sea urchins and starfish (sea stars) thrived. The first radiation of the diatoms (generally siliceous, rather than calcareous) in the oceans occurred during the Cretaceous; freshwater diatoms did not appear until the Miocene. The Cretaceous was also an important interval in the evolution of bioerosion, the production of borings and scrapings in rocks, hardgrounds and shells (Taylor and Wilson, 2003).

Extinction

There was a progressive decline in biodiversity during the Maastrichtian stage of the Cretaceous Period prior to the suggested ecological crisis induced by events at the K-T boundary. Furthermore, biodiversity required a substantial amount of time to recover from the K-T event, despite the probable existence of an abundance of vacant ecological niches.

Despite the severity of this boundary event, there was significant variability in the rate of extinction between and within different clades. Species which depended on photosynthesis declined or became extinct because of the reduction in solar energy reaching the earth's surface due to atmospheric particles blocking the sunlight. As is the case today, photosynthesizing organisms, such as phytoplankton and land plants, formed the primary part of the food chain in the late Cretaceous. Evidence suggests that herbivorous animals, which depended on plants and plankton as their food, died out as their food sources became scarce; consequently, top predators such as Tyrannosaurus rex also perished.

Coccolithophorids and molluscs, including ammonites, rudists, freshwater snails and mussels, as well as organisms whose food chain included these shell builders, became extinct or suffered heavy losses. For example, it is thought that ammonites were the principal food of mosasaurs, a group of giant marine reptiles that became extinct at the boundary.

Omnivores, insectivores and carrion-eaters survived the extinction event, perhaps because of the increased availability of their food sources. At the end of the Cretaceous there seem to have been no purely herbivorous or carnivorous mammals. Mammals and birds which survived the extinction fed on insects, larvae, worms, and snails, which in turn fed on dead plant and animal matter. Scientists theorise that these organisms survived the collapse of plant-based food chains because they fed on detritus.

In stream communities, few groups of animals became extinct. Stream communities rely less on food from living plants and more on detritus that washes in from land. This particular ecological niche buffered them from extinction. Similar, but more complex patterns have been found in the oceans. Extinction was more severe among animals living in the water column, than among animals living on or in the sea floor. Animals in the water column are almost entirely dependent on primary production from living phytoplankton, while animals living on or in the ocean floor feed on detritus or can switch to detritus feeding.

The largest air-breathing survivors of the event, crocodilians and champsosaurs, were semi-aquatic and had access to detritus. Modern crocodilians can live as scavengers and can survive for months without food, and their young are small, grow slowly, and feed largely on invertebrates and dead organisms or fragments of organisms for their first few years. These characteristics have been linked to crocodilian survival at the end of the Cretaceous.

See also

References

  • Kashiyama, Yuichiro; Nanako O. Ogawa, Junichiro Kuroda, Motoo Shiro, Shinya Nomoto, Ryuji Tada, Hiroshi Kitazato, Naohiko Ohkouchi "Diazotrophic cyanobacteria as the major photoautotrophs during mid-Cretaceous oceanic anoxic events: Nitrogen and carbon isotopic evidence from sedimentary porphyrin". Organic Geochemistry 39 (5): 532–549. Retrieved on 2008-05-10.
  • Neal L Larson, Steven D Jorgensen, Robert A Farrar and Peter L Larson. Ammonites and the other Cephalopods of the Pierre Seaway. Geoscience Press, 1997.
  • Ogg, Jim; June, 2004, Overview of Global Boundary Stratotype Sections and Points (GSSP's) http://www.stratigraphy.org/gssp.htm Accessed April 30, 2006.
  • Ovechkina, M.N. and Alekseev, A.S. 2005. Quantitative changes of calcareous nannoflora in the Saratov region (Russian Platform) during the late Maastrichtian warming event. Journal of Iberian Geology 31 (1): 149-165. PDF
  • Rasnitsyn, A.P. and Quicke, D.L.J. (2002). History of Insects. Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 1-4020-0026-X. — detailed coverage of various aspects of the evolutionary history of the insects.
  • Skinner, Brian J., and Stephen C. Porter. The Dynamic Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995. ISBN 0-471-60618-9}
  • Stanley, Steven M. Earth System History. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1999. ISBN 0-7167-2882-6
  • Taylor, P.D. and Wilson, M.A., 2003. Palaeoecology and evolution of marine hard substrate communities. Earth-Science Reviews 62: 1-103.

Notes

External links

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