During the Devonian Period, which occurred in the Paleozoic era, the first fish evolved legsand started to walk on land as tetrapods around 365 Ma. Various terrestrial arthropods also became well-established.
The first seed-bearing plants spread across dry land, forming huge forests. In the oceans, primitive sharks became more numerous than in the Silurian and the late Ordovician, and the first lobe-finned and bony fish. The first ammonite mollusks appeared, and trilobites, the mollusc-like brachiopods, as well as great coral reefs were still common. The Late Devonian extinction severely affected marine life.
The paleogeography was dominated by the supercontinent of Gondwana to the south, the continent of Siberia to the north, and the early formation of the small supercontinent of Euramerica in the middle.
The period is named after Devon, a county in southwestern England, where Devonian outcrops are common. While the rock beds that define the start and end of the period are well identified, the exact dates are uncertain. According to the International Commission on Stratigraphy (Ogg, 2004), the Devonian extends from the end of the Silurian Period 416.0 ± 2.8 million years ago (Mya), to the beginning of the Carboniferous Period 359.2 ± 2.5 Mya (in North America, the beginning of the Mississippian subperiod of the Carboniferous) (ICS 2004).
Well into the 20th century, the Devonian was often quoted as being "the age of fishes", referring to the great diversification of various piscine groups in the period. While the development of fishes is of great importance from an anthropocentric point of view (inasmuch as they are our vertebrate relatives), the name is now avoided, as fishes were but one of several important groups to see extensive development on the Devonian (see under Devonian biota). The name is frequently found in older (and a few newer) works.
In nineteenth-century texts the Devonian has been called the "Old Red Age", after the red and brown terrestrial deposits known in the United Kingdom as the Old Red Sandstone in which early fossil discoveries were found.
The Devonian has also erroneously been characterized as a "greenhouse age", due to sampling bias: most of the early Devonian-age discoveries came from the strata of western Europe and eastern North America, which at the time straddled the Equator as part of the supercontinent of Euramerica where fossil signatures of widespread reefs indicate tropical climates that were warm and moderately humid but in fact the climate in the Devonian differed greatly between epochs and geographic regions. For example, during the Early Devonian, arid conditions were prevalent through much of the world including Siberia, Australia, North America, and China, but Africa and South America had a warm temperate climate. In the Late Devonian, by contrast, arid conditions were less prevalent across the world and temperate climates were more common.
The Early Devonian lasts from and begins with the Lockhovian stage, which lasts until the Pragian. This spans from , and is followed by the Emsian, which lasts until the Middle Devonian begins, . The middle Devonian comprises two subdivisions, the Eifelian giving way to the Givetian . During this time the armoured jawless ostracoderm fish were declining in diversity; the jawed fish were thriving and increasing in diversity in both the oceans and freshwater. The shallow, warm, oxygen-depleted waters of Devonian inland lakes, surrounded by primitive plants, provided the environment necessary for certain early fish to develop essential characteristics such as well developed lungs, and the ability to crawl out of the water and onto the land for short periods of time.
Finally, the late Devonian starts with the Frasnian, , during which the first forests were taking shape on land. The first tetrapods appear in the fossil record in the ensuing Famennian subdivision, the beginning and end of which are marked with extinction events. This lasted until the end of the Devonian, .
The continent Euramerica (or Laurussia) was created in the early Devonian by the collision of Laurentia and Baltica, which rotated into the natural dry zone along the Tropic of Capricorn, which is formed as much in Paleozoic times as nowadays by the convergence of two great airmasses, the Hadley cell and the Ferrel cell. In these near-deserts, the Old Red Sandstone sedimentary beds formed, made red by the oxidized iron (hematite) characteristic of drought conditions.
Near the equator, Pangaea began to consolidate from the plates containing North America and Europe, further raising the northern Appalachian Mountains and forming the Caledonian Mountains in Great Britain and Scandinavia.
The west coast of Devonian North America, by contrast, was a passive margin with deep silty embayments, river deltas and estuaries, in today's Idaho and Nevada; an approaching volcanic island arc reached the steep slope of the continental shelf in Late Devonian times and began to uplift deep water deposits, a collision that was the prelude to the mountain-building episode of Mississippian times called the Antler orogeny.
The southern continents remained tied together in the supercontinent of Gondwana. The remainder of modern Eurasia lay in the Northern Hemisphere. Sea levels were high worldwide, and much of the land lay submerged under shallow seas, where tropical reef organisms lived.
The deep, enormous Panthalassa (the "universal ocean") covered the rest of the planet. Other minor oceans were Paleo-Tethys, Proto-Tethys, Rheic Ocean, and Ural Ocean (which was closed during the collision with Siberia and Baltica).
Devonian rocks are oil and gas producers in some areas.
The first Ammonites also appeared during or slightly before the early Devonian period around 400 million years ago.
A recently discovered fossil of a fish embryo attached to its mother by an umbilical cord in 380 million year old Devonian strata provides the earliest fossil evidence of vertebrates giving live birth to their young.
By the Devonian, shrub-like forests of small, primitive plants existed: lycophytes, sphenophytes, ferns, and progymnosperms had evolved. Most of these plants had true roots and leaves, and many were quite tall. In the Late Devonian, the tree-like ancestral fern Archaeopteris and the giant cladoxylopsid trees grew with true wood. (See also: lignin.) These are the oldest known trees of the world's first forests. Prototaxites was the fruiting body of an enormous fungus that stood more than 8 meter tall. By the end of the Devonian, the first seed-forming plants had appeared. This rapid appearance of so many plant groups and growth forms has been called the "Devonian Explosion". Primitive arthropods co-evolved with this diversified terrestrial vegetation structure. The evolving co-dependence of insects and seed-plants that characterizes a recognizably modern world had its genesis in the Late Devonian. The development of soils and plant root systems probably led to changes in the speed and pattern of erosion and sediment deposition. The rapid evolution of a terrestrial ecosystem containing copious animals opened the way for the first vertebrates to seek out a terrestrial living. By the end of the Devonian, early amphibians and arthropods were solidly established on the land.
The 'greening' of the continents acted as a carbon dioxide sink, and atmospheric levels of this greenhouse gas may have dropped. This may have cooled the climate and led to a massive extinction event. See Late Devonian extinction.
A major extinction occurred at the beginning of the last phase of the Devonian period, the Famennian faunal stage, (the Frasnian-Famennian boundary), about 364 million years ago, when all the fossil agnathan fishes, save for the psammosteid heterostracans, suddenly disappeared. A second strong pulse closed the Devonian period. The Late Devonian extinction was one of five major extinction events in the history of the Earth's biota, more drastic than the familiar extinction event that closed the Cretaceous.
The Devonian extinction crisis primarily affected the marine community, and selectively affected shallow warm-water organisms rather than cool-water organisms. The most important group to be affected by this extinction event were the reef-builders of the great Devonian reef-systems .
Amongst the severely affected marine groups were the brachiopods, trilobites, ammonites, conodonts, and acritarchs, as well as jawless fish, and all placoderms. Land plants as well as freshwater species, such as our tetrapod ancestors, were relatively unaffected by the Late Devonian extinction event.
Reasons for the Late Devonian extinctions are still speculative. The Canadian paleontologist Digby McLaren suggested in 1969 that the Devonian extinction events were caused by an asteroid impact; however, while there were Late Devonian collision events (see the Alamo bolide impact), little evidence supports the existence of a Devonian crater large enough.