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).
|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)|
|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)|
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.