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Online exhibits : Geologic time scale : Mesozoic Era

The Cretaceous Period

The Cretaceous is usually noted for being the last portion of the "Age of Dinosaurs", but that does not mean that new kinds of dinosaurs did not appear then. It is during the Cretaceous that the first ceratopsian and pachycepalosaurid dinosaurs appeared. Also during this time, we find the first fossils of many insect groups, modern mammal and bird groups, and the first flowering plants.

The breakup of the world-continent Pangea, which began to disperse during the Jurassic, continued. This led to increased regional differences in floras and faunas between the northern and southern continents.

The end of the Cretaceous brought the end of many previously successful and diverse groups of organisms, such as non-avian dinosaurs and ammonites. This laid open the stage for those groups which had previously taken secondary roles to come to the forefront. The Cretaceous was thus the time in which life as it now exists on Earth came together.

Life

No great extinction or burst of diversity separated the Cretaceous from the Jurassic Period that had preceded it. In some ways, things went on as they had. Dinosaurs both great and small moved through forests of ferns, cycads, and conifers. Ammonites, belemnites, other molluscs, and fish were hunted by great "marine reptiles," and pterosaurs and birds flapped and soared in the air above. Yet the Cretaceous saw the first appearance of many lifeforms that would go on to play key roles in the coming Cenozoic world.

Perhaps the most important of these events, at least for terrestrial life, was the first appearance of the flowering plants, also called the angiosperms or Anthophyta. First appearing in the Lower Cretaceous around 125 million years ago, the flowering plants first radiated in the middle Cretaceous, about 100 million years ago. Early angiosperms did not develop shrub- or tree-like morphologies, but by the close of the Cretaceous, a number of forms had evolved that any modern botanist would recognize. The angiosperms thrived in a variety of environments such as areas with damper climates, habitats favored by cycads and cycadeoids, and riparian zones. High southern latitudes were not invaded by angiosperms until the end of the Cretaceous. Ferns dominated open, dry and/or low-nutrient lands. Typical Jurassic vegetation, including conifers, cycads, and other gymnosperms, continued on into the Lower Cretaceous without significant changes. At the beginning of this period, conifer diversity was fairly low in the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, but by the middle of the period, species diversification was increasing exponentially. Swamps were dominated by conifers and angiosperm dicots.

At about the same time, many modern groups of insects were beginning to diversify, and we find the oldest known ants and butterflies. Aphids, grasshoppers, and gall wasps appear in the Cretaceous, as well as termites and ants in the later part of this period. Another important insect to evolve was the eusocial bee, which was integral to the ecology and evolution of flowering plants.

The Cretaceous also saw the first radiation of the diatoms in the oceans (freshwater diatoms did not appear until the Miocene).

The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction
The most famous of all mass extinctions marks the end of the Cretaceous Period, about 65 million years ago. As everyone knows, this was the great extinction in which the dinosaurs died out, except for the birds, of course. The other lineages of "marine reptiles" — the ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs — also were extinct by the end of the Cretaceous, as were the flying pterosaurs, but some, like the ichthyosaurs, were probably extinct a little before the end of the Cretaceous. Many species of foraminiferans went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, as did the ammonites. But many groups of organisms, such as flowering plants, gastropods and pelecypods (snails and clams), amphibians, lizards and snakes, crocodilians, and mammals "sailed through" the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, with few or no apparent extinctions at all.

What on Earth — or not — caused this extinction and how can we know? What killed the dinosaurs?

Tectonics and paleoclimate

The Cretaceous is defined as the period between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago,* the last period of the Mesozoic Era, following the Jurassic and ending with the extinction of the dinosaurs (except birds). By the beginning of the Cretaceous, the supercontinent Pangea was already rifting apart, and by the mid-Cretaceous, it had split into several smaller continents. This created large-scale geographic isolation, causing a divergence in evolution of all land-based life for the two new land masses. The rifting apart also generated extensive new coastlines, and a corresponding increase in the available near-shore habitat. Additionally, seasons began to grow more pronounced as the global climate became cooler. Forests evolved to look similar to present day forests, with oaks, hickories, and magnolias becoming common in North America by the end of the Cretaceous.

At the end of the Cretaceous Period, 65 million years ago, an asteroid hit Earth in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, forming what is today called the Chicxulub impact crater. It has been estimated that half of the world's species went extinct at about this time, but no accurate species count exists for all groups of organisms. Some have argued that many of the species to go extinct did so before the impact, perhaps because of environmental changes occuring at this time. Whatever its cause, this extinction event marks the end of the Cretaceous Period and of the Mesozoic Era.

Localities

  • Clayton Lake, New Mexico: This Cretaceous site has some of the most extensive and best preserved dinosaur trackways in the United States.

  • Pt. Loma Formation, California: This Cretaceous locality has yielded important fossils for understanding western North American dinosaurs.

Resources

  • Find out more about the Cretaceous paleontology and geology of North America at the Paleontology Portal.
  • See the Wikipedia page on the Cretaceous.
     

* Dates from the International Commission on Stratigraphy's International Stratigraphic Chart, 2009.
 
Ben Waggoner created the original content, 11/26/1995; Brian Speer added graphics, 3/11/1997, and additional text, 2/1/1998; the material on tectonics and paleoclimate was added by Quynh-Huong Bui, Julia Davis, Ariane Helou, Saro Manoukian, and Musetta So as part of a Biology 1B project for Section 112 under Brian Speer, 5/1/2000; Sarah Rieboldt updated the pages to reflect the Geological Society of America (GSA) 1999 Geologic Timescale, 11/2002; Dave Smith recombined the content into a single page, adapted it to the new site format and made minor edits, 6/15/2011