The Cenozoic era is the most recent era in the history of life, spanning from 65 million years ago to the present day. In terms of orders of magnitude, which we are using here as a way to conceptualise Deep Time, more than three-quarters of the entire Cenozoic or Age of Mammals can fit in the 50 million year interval, about the average time for a geological period.
The Cenozoic is therefore the shortest of the three main geological eras, shorter even then the Jurassic and the Cretaceous alone. This era, which followed after the extinction of dinosaurs, saw the rise of mammals as the dominant species on Earth, and the tremendous diversification of bird and mammal groups.
The Paleocene epoch, lasting from 65.5 to 56 million years ago, was marked by the recovery of life after the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. During this time, mammals started to diversify and take over many ecological niches left by the dinosaurs. There were several warm intervals during the Paleocene, allowing for the spread of tropical and subtropical flora and fauna.
During the Eocene epoch, from 56 to 33.9 million years ago, mammals continued to diversify and evolve into a wide range of forms, including early primates, and ungulates, one line of which became whales. This was also a time of warm temperatures, with the Earth's poles being covered in forests. The Eocene is known for having some of the highest atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the past 65 million years. The end of the Eocene and the start of the Oligocene marked the extinction of many archaic mammals types, including the predominant Brontothere megaherbivores on land, and early whales ((archaeoceti) which at the time had rules the seas.
The Oligocene epoch, from 33.9 to 23 million years ago, saw the cooling of the Earth's climate and the spread of grasslands. This cooling trend set the stage for the formation of the Antarctic ice cap, which eventually led to further cooling of the Earth's climate. During the Oligocene, mammals such as horses, rhinoceroses, and primates continued to diversify.
The Miocene epoch, from 23 to 5.3 million years ago, was a time of significant cooling and drying of the Earth's climate. This led to the formation of the savanna and the expansion of grasslands, which allowed for the evolution of grazing mammals such as antelopes and giraffes. During the Miocene, primates also diversified, leading to the evolution of apes and eventually, hominids.
The Pliocene epoch, from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago, saw the continued cooling of the Earth's climate, leading to the formation of the large ice sheets that still exist today. During this time, hominids continued to evolve, including the evolution of early human ancestors such as Australopithecus, leading to the emergence of Homo habilis, the first member of the genus Homo. During this time, the Earth's climate became more seasonal and the planet saw the formation of the large ice sheets that covered much of the northern hemisphere. The Pliocene also saw the evolution of modern species of mammals, including elephants, horses, and whales.
The Pleistocene epoch, from 2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago, was a time of repeated glaciations and interglacials, leading to significant changes in the Earth's climate and ecosystems. During this time, the genus Homo continued to evolve, leading to the emergence of Homo erectus and eventually, Homo sapiens. The Pleistocene was also a time of significant extinction of large mammals, such as mammoths and sabre-toothed cats.
The Holocene epoch, from 11,700 years ago to the present, is marked by the end of the last glacial period and the beginning of the modern climate. During this time, Homo sapiens have spread across the world, leading to the development of civilizations and the rise of human culture. The Holocene is also marked by significant changes in the Earth's climate, including the Little Ice Age and the current period of global warming.
For the fanciful equivalent projected into the future, see the long term far distant future.
The last fifty million years, from Wikipedia
Page by M Alan Kazlev, 2023