The Paleozoic covers the time from the first appearance of abundant, soft-shelled fossils to the time when the continents were beginning to be dominated by large, relatively sophisticated reptiles and relatively modern plants. The lower (oldest) boundary was classically set at the first appearance of creatures known as trilobites and archeocyathids. The upper (youngest) boundary is set at a major extinction event 300 million years later, known as the Permian extinction. Modern practice sets the older boundary at the first appearance of a distinctive trace fossil called Trichophycus pedum.
At the start of the era, all life was confined to bacteria, algae, sponges and a variety of somewhat enigmatic forms known collectively as the Ediacaran fauna. A large number of body plans appeared nearly simultaneously at the start of the era -- a phenomenon known as the Cambrian Explosion. There is some evidence that simple life may already have invaded the land at the start of the Paleozoic, but substantial plants and animals did not take to the land until the Silurian and did not thrive until the Devonian. Although primitive vertebrates are known near the start of the Paleozoic, animal forms were dominated by invertebrates until the mid-Paleozoic. Fish populations exploded in the Devonian. During the late Paleozoic, great forests of primitive plants thrived on land forming the great coal beds of Europe and eastern North America. By the end of the era, the first large, sophisticated reptiles and the first modern plants (conifers) had developed.
Geologically, the Paleozoic starts shortly after the breakup of a supercontinent called Pannotia and at the end of a global ice age. (See Varanger glaciation and Snowball Earth). Throughout the early Paleozoic, the Earth's landmass was broken up into a substantial number of relatively small continents. Toward the end of the era, the continents gathered together into a supercontinent called Pangaea, which included most of the Earth's land area.
The Early Cambrian climate was probably moderate at first, becoming warmer over the course of the Cambrian, as the second-greatest sustained sea level rise in the Phanerozoic got underway. However, as if to offset this trend, Gondwana moved south with considerable speed, so that, in Ordovician time, Most of West Gondwana (Africa and South America) lay directly over the South Pole. The Early Paleozoic climate was also strongly zonal, with the result that the "climate", in an abstract sense became warmer, but the living space of most organisms of the time -- the continental shelf marine environment -- became steadily colder. However, Baltica (Northern Europe and Russia) and Laurentia (eastern North America and Greenland) remained in the tropical zone, while China and Australia lay in waters which were at least temperate. The Early Paleozoic ended, rather abruptly, with the short, but apparently severe, Late Ordovician Ice Age. This cold spell caused the second-greatest mass extinction of Phanerozoic time. Over time, the warmer weather moved into the Paleozoic era.
The Middle Paleozoic was a time of considerable stability. Sea levels had dropped coincident with the Ice Age, but slowly recovered over the course of the Silurian and Devonian. The slow merger of Baltica and Laurentia, and the northward movement of bits and pieces of Gondwana created numerous new regions of relatively warm, shallow sea floor. As plants took hold on the continental margins, oxygen levels increased and carbon dioxide dropped, although much less dramatically. The north-south temperature gradient also seems to have moderated, or metazoan life simply became hardier, or both. At any event, the far southern continental margins of Antarctica and West Gondwana became increasingly less barren. The Devonian ended with a series of turnover pulses which killed off much of Middle Paleozoic vertebrate life, without noticeably reducing species diversity overall.
The Late Paleozoic was a time which has left us a good many unanswered questions. The Mississippian epoch began with a spike in atmospheric oxygen, while carbon dioxide plummeted to unheard-of lows. This destabilized the climate and led to one, and perhaps two, ice ages during the Carboniferous. These were far more severe than the brief Late Ordovician Ice; but, this time, the effects on world biota were inconsequential. By the Cisuralian, both oxygen and carbon dioxide had recovered to more normal levels. On the other hand, the assembly of Pangea created huge arid inland areas subject to temperature extremes. The Lopingian is associated with falling sea levels, increased carbon dioxide and general climatic deterioration, culminating in the devastation of the Permian extinction.