The Paleocene or Palaeocene, the “old recent”, is a geologic epoch that lasted from about 66 to 56 million years ago. It is the first epoch of the Paleogene Period in the modern Cenozoic Era. As with many geologic periods, the strata that define the epoch’s beginning and end are well identified, but the exact ages remain uncertain.
The Paleocene Epoch brackets two major events in Earth’s history. It started with the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous, known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) boundary. This was a time marked by the demise of non-avian dinosaurs, giant marine reptiles and much other fauna and flora. The die-off of the dinosaurs left unfilled ecological niches worldwide. The Paleocene ended with the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, a geologically brief (~0.2 million year) interval characterized by extreme changes in climate and carbon cycling.
The name “Paleocene” comes from Ancient Greek and refers to the “old(er)” (παλαιός, palaios) “new” (καινός, kainos) fauna that arose during the epoch.
Boundaries and subdivisions
The K–Pg boundary that marks the separation between Cretaceous and Paleocene is visible in the geological record of much of the Earth by a discontinuity in the fossil fauna, with high iridium levels. There is also fossil evidence of abrupt changes in flora and fauna. There is some evidence that a substantial but very short-lived climatic change may have happened in the very early decades of the Paleocene. There are several theories about the cause of the K–Pg extinction event, with most evidence supporting the impact of a 10 km diameter asteroid forming the buried Chicxulub crater on the coast of Yucatan, Mexico.
The end of the Paleocene (~55.8 Ma) was also marked by a time of major change, one of the most significant periods of global change during the Cenozoic. The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum upset oceanic and atmospheric circulation and led to the extinction of numerous deep-sea benthic foraminifera and a major turnover in mammals on land.
The Paleocene is divided into three stages, the Danian, the Selandian and the Thanetian, as shown in the table above. Additionally, the Paleocene is divided into six Mammal Paleogene zones.
The early Paleocene was cooler and dryer than the preceding Cretaceous, though temperatures rose sharply during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. The climate became warm and humid worldwide towards the Eocene boundary, with subtropical vegetation growing in Greenland and Patagonia, crocodilians swimming off the coast of Greenland, and early primates evolving in the tropical palm forests of northern Wyoming. The Earth’s poles were cool and temperate; North America, Europe, Australia and southern South America were warm and temperate; equatorial areas had tropical climates; and north and south of the equatorial areas, climates were hot and arid, not dissimilar to today’s global desert belts around 30 degrees northern and southern latitude.
In many ways, the Paleocene continued processes that had begun during the late Cretaceous Period. During the Paleocene, the continents continued to drift toward their present positions. Supercontinent Laurasia had not yet separated into three continents – Europe and Greenland were still connected, North America and Asia were still intermittently joined by a land bridge, while Greenland and North America were beginning to separate. The Laramide orogeny of the late Cretaceous continued to uplift the Rocky Mountains in the American west, which ended in the succeeding epoch.
South and North America remained separated by equatorial seas (they joined during the Neogene); the components of the former southern supercontinent Gondwanaland continued to split apart, with Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australia pulling away from each other. Africa was heading north towards Europe, slowly closing the Tethys Ocean, and India began its migration to Asia that would lead to a tectonic collision and the formation of the Himalayas.
The inland seas in North America (Western Interior Seaway) and Europe had receded by the beginning of the Paleocene, making way for new land-based flora and fauna.
Warm seas circulated throughout the world, including the poles. The earliest Paleocene featured a low diversity and abundance of marine life, but this trend reversed later in the epoch. Tropical conditions gave rise to abundant marine life, including coral reefs. With the demise of marine reptiles at the end of the Cretaceous, sharks became the top predators. At the end of the Cretaceous, the ammonites and many species of foraminifera became extinct.
Marine fauna also came to resemble modern fauna, with only the marine mammals and the Carcharhinid sharks missing.
Terrestrial Paleocene strata immediately overlying the K–Pg boundary is in places marked by a “fern spike”: a bed especially rich in fern fossils. Ferns are often the first species to colonize areas damaged by forest fires; thus the fern spike may indicate post-Chicxulub crater devastation.
In general, the Paleocene is marked by the development of modern plant species. Cacti and palm trees appeared. Paleocene and later plant fossils are generally attributed to modern genera or to closely related taxa.
The warm temperatures worldwide gave rise to thick tropical, sub-tropical and deciduous forest cover around the globe (the first recognizably modern rain forests) with ice-free polar regions covered with coniferous and deciduous trees. With no large browsing dinosaurs to thin them, Paleocene forests were probably denser than those of the Cretaceous.
Flowering plants (angiosperms), first seen in the Cretaceous, continued to develop and proliferate, and along with them coevolved the insects that fed on these plants and pollinated them.