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Carboniferous Time

The Carboniferous is a geologic period and system that extends from the end of the Devonian period, about 359.2 ± 2.5 Ma (million years ago), to the beginning of the Permian period, about 299.0 ± 0.8 Ma.

The Carboniferous was a time of glaciation, low sea level and mountain building; a minor marine extinction event occurred in the middle of the period.


Marine Invertebrates

In the oceans the most important marine invertebrate groups are the foraminifera, corals, bryozoa, brachiopods, ammonoids, and echinoderms (especially crinoids).

For the first time foraminifera take a prominent part in the marine faunas. The large spindle-shaped genus Fusulina and its relatives were abundant in what is now Russia, China, Japan, North America; other important genera include Valvulina, Endothyra, Archaediscus, and Saccammina (the latter common in Britain and Belgium). Some Carboniferous genera are still extant. The microscopic shells of Radiolaria are found in cherts of this age in the Culm of Devonshire and Cornwall, and in Russia, Germany and elsewhere.
Sponges are known from spicules and anchor ropes, and include various forms such as the Calcispongea Cotyliscus and Girtycoelia, and the genus of unusual colonial glass sponges Titusvillia. Both reef-building and solitary corals diversify and flourish; these include both rugose (e.g. Canina, Corwenia, Neozaphrentis), heterocorals, and tabulate (e.g. Chaetetes, Chladochonus, Michelinia) forms. Conularids were well represented by Conularia Bryozoa are abundant in some regions; the Fenestellids including Fenestella, Polypora, and the remarkable Archimedes, so named because it is in the shape of an Archimedean screw. Brachiopods are also abundant; they include Productids, some of which (e.g. Gigantoproductus) reached very large (for brachiopods) size and had very thick shells, while others like Chonetes were more conservative in form. Athyridids, Spiriferids, Rhynchonellids, are Terebratulids are also very common. Inarticulate forms include Discina and Crania. Some species and genera had a very wide distribution with only minor variations. Annelids such as Spirorbis and Serpulites are common fossils in some horizons. Among the mollusca, the bivalves continue to increase in numbers and importance. Typical genera include Aviculopecten, Posidonomya, Nucula, Carbonicola, Edmondia, and Modiola Conocardium is a common rostroconch. Gastropods are also numerous, including the genera Murchisonia, Euomphalus, Naticopsis.
Nautiloid cephalopods are represented by tightly coiled nautilids, with straight-shelled and curved-shelled forms becoming increasingly rare. Goniatite Ammonoids are common.

Trilobites are rarer than in previous periods, represented only by the proetid group. A class of Crustacean Zooplankton known as Ostracods such as Cythere, Kirkbya, and Beyrichia was abundant. Amongst the echinoderms, the crinoids were the most numerous. Dense submarine thickets of long-stemmed crinoids appear to have flourished in shallow seas, and their remains were consolidated into thick beds of rock. Prominent genera include Cyathocrinus, Woodocrinus, and Actinocrinus. Echinoids such as Archaeocidaris and Palaeechinus were also present. The Blastoids, which included the Pentreinitidae and Codasteridae and superficially resembled crinoids in the possession of long stalks attached to the sea-bed, attain their maximum development at this time.

Fish

Many fish inhabited the Carboniferous seas; predominantly Elasmobranchs (sharks and their relatives). These included some, like Psammodus, with crushing pavement-like teeth adapted for grinding the shells of brachiopods, crustaceans, and other marine organisms. Other sharks had piercing teeth, such as the Symmoriida; some, the petalodonts, had peculiar cycloid cutting teeth. Most of the sharks were marine, but the Xenacanthida invaded fresh waters of the coal swamps. Among the bony fish, the Palaeonisciformes found in coastal waters also appear to have migrated to rivers. Sarcopterygian fish were also prominent, and one group, the Rhizodonts, reached very large size.

Most species of Carboniferous marine fish have been described largely from teeth, fin spines and dermal ossicles, with smaller freshwater fish preserved whole.

Freshwater fish were abundant, and include the genera Ctenodus, Uronemus, Acanthodes, Cheirodus, and Gyracanthus.

Sharks (especially the Stethacanthids) underwent a major evolutionary radiation during the Carboniferous. It is believed that this evolutionary radiation occurred because the decline of the placoderms at the end of the Devonian period caused many environmental niches to become unoccupied and allowed new organisms to evolve and fill these niches. As a result of the evolutionary radiation carboniferous sharks assumed a wide variety of bizarre shapes including Stethacanthus who possessed a flat brush-like dorsal fin with a patch of denticles on its top. Stethacanthus unusual fin may have been used in mating rituals.

Plants

Painting depicting some of the most significant plants of the Carboniferous.
Early Carboniferous land plants were very similar to those of the preceding Late Devonian, but new groups also appeared at this time.The main Early Carboniferous plants were the Equisetales (Horse-tails), Sphenophyllales (vine-like plants), Lycopodiales (Club mosses), Lepidodendrales (scale trees), Filicales (Ferns), Medullosales (informally included in the "seed ferns", an artificial assemblage of a number of early gymnosperm groups) and the Cordaitales. These continued to dominate throughout the period, but during late Carboniferous, several other groups, Cycadophyta (cycads), the Callistophytales (another group of "seed ferns"), and the Voltziales (related to and sometimes included under the conifers), appeared.

The Carboniferous lycophytes of the order Lepidodendrales, which are cousins (but not ancestors) of the tiny club-moss of today, were huge trees with trunks 30 meters high and up to 1.5 meters in diameter. These included Lepidodendron (with its fruit cone called Lepidostrobus), Halonia, Lepidophloios and Sigillaria. The roots of several of these forms are known as Stigmaria.

The fronds of some Carboniferous ferns are almost identical with those of living species. Probably many species were epiphytic. Fossil ferns and "seed ferns" include Pecopteris, Cyclopteris, Neuropteris, Alethopteris, and Sphenopteris; Megaphyton and Caulopteris were tree ferns. The Equisetales included the common giant form Calamites, with a trunk diameter of 30 to 60 cm and a height of up to 20 meters. Sphenophyllum was a slender climbing plant with whorls of leaves, which was probably related both to the calamites and the lycopods.Cordaites, a tall plant (6 to over 30 meters) with strap-like leaves, was related to the cycads and conifers; the catkin-like inflorescence, which bore yew-like berries, is called Cardiocarpus. These plants were thought to live in swamps and mangroves. True coniferous trees (Walchia, of the order Voltziales) appear later in the Carboniferous, and preferred higher drier ground.the order Voltziales) appear later in the Carboniferous, and preferred higher drier ground.

Freshwater and Lagoonal Invertebrates

Freshwater Carboniferous invertebrates include various bivalve molluscs that lived in brackish or fresh water, such as Anthracomya, Naiadiles, and Carbonicola; diverse crustaceans such as Bairdia, Carbonia, Estheria, Acanthocaris, Dithyrocaris, and Anthrapalaemon.

The Eurypterids were also diverse, and are represented by such genera as Eurypterus, Glyptoscorpius, Anthraconectes, Megarachne (originally misinterpreted as a giant spider) and the specialised very large Hibbertopterus. Many of these were amphibious.

Frequently a temporary return of marine conditions resulted in marine or brackish water genera such as Lingula, Orbiculoidea, and Productus being found in the thin beds known as marine bands.

Terrestrial Invertebrates

Fossil remains of air-breathing insects, myriapods and arachnids are known from the late Carboniferous, but so far not from the early Carboniferous. Their diversity when they do appear, however, shows that these arthropods were both well developed and numerous. Their large size can be attributed to the moistness of the environment (mostly swampy fern forests) and the fact that the oxygen concentration in the earth's atmosphere in the Carboniferous was much higher than today. (The oxygen concentration in the earth's atmosphere during the Carboniferous was 35% whereas the oxygen concentration in earth's current atmosphere is 21%.) This required less effort for respiration and allowed arthropods to grow larger. Among the insect groups are the huge predatory Protodonata (griffinflies), among which was Meganeura, a giant dragonfly-like insect and with a wingspan of ca. 75 cm the largest flying insect ever to roam the planet. Further groups are the Syntonopterodea (relatives of present-day mayflies), the abundant and often large sap-sucking Palaeodictyopteroidea, the diverse herbivorous "Protorthoptera", and numerous basal Dictyoptera (ancestors of cockroaches). Many insects have been obtained from the coalfields of Saarbruck and Commentry, and from the hollow trunks of fossil trees in Nova Scotia. Some British coalfields have yielded good specimens: Archaeoptitus, from the Derbyshire coalfield, had a spread of wing extending to more than 35 cm; some specimens (Brodia) still exhibit traces of brilliant wing colors. In the Nova Scotian tree trunks land snails (Archaeozonites, Dendropupa) have been found.

Tetrapods

Carboniferous amphibians were diverse and common by the middle of the period, more so than they are today; some were as long as 6 meters, and those fully terrestrial as adults had scaly skin.[14] They included a number of basal tetrapod groups classified in early books under the Labyrinthodontia. These had long bodies, a head covered with bony plates and generally weak or undeveloped limbs. The largest were over 2 meters long. They were accompanied by an assemblage of smaller amphibians included under the Lepospondyli, often only about 15 cm long. Some Carboniferous amphibians were aquatic and lived in rivers (Loxomma, Eogyrinus, Proterogyrinus); others may have been semi-aquatic (Ophiderpeton, Amphibamus) or terrestrial (Dendrerpeton, Hyloplesion, Tuditanus, Anthracosaurus). One of the greatest evolutionary innovations of the Carboniferous was the amniote egg, which allowed for the further exploitation of the land by certain tetrapods. These included the earliest Sauropsid reptiles (Hylonomus), and the earliest known synapsid (Archaeothyris). These small lizard-like animals quickly gave rise to many descendants. The amniote egg allowed these ancestors of all later birds, mammals, and reptiles to reproduce on land by preventing the desiccation, or drying-out, of the embryo inside. By the end of the Carboniferous period, the amniotes had already diversified into a number of groups, including protorothyridids, captorhinids, aeroscelids, and several families of pelycosaurs.

 


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