Tertiary period

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Tertiary period

Tertiary period (tûr´shēĕr´ē), name for the major portion of the Cenozoic era, the most recent of the geologic eras (see Geologic Timescale, table) from around 26 to 66 million years ago. The name Tertiary was first applied about the middle of the 18th cent. to a layer of deposits, largely unconsolidated sediments, geologically younger than, and overlying, certain other deposits then known as Primary and Secondary. Later (c.1830) a fourth division, the Quaternary, was added. Although these divisions of the earth's crust seemed adequate for the region to which the designations were originally applied (parts of the Alps and plains of Italy), when the same system was later extended to other parts of Europe and to America it proved to be inapplicable. It was realized that one scheme of classification could not be applied universally: The names Primary and Secondary were generally abandoned; Tertiary and Quaternary were, and still are, used, but other geologic literature substitutes other names, including the Palaeogene and Neogene. The main divisions of the Tertiary are the Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, and Pliocene epochs. Sometimes the Paleocene is included in the Eocene. At the beginning of the Tertiary, the outlines of the North American continent were very similar to those of today; by the close of the period, Europe also had emerged substantially in its present form. Marine submergences in Europe were moderately extensive, but in North America they never went beyond the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts and the lower Mississippi valley. These inundations took place chiefly in the Eocene, Oligocene, and Miocene epochs, the continents being generally emergent in the Pliocene epoch. The Tertiary formations of either unconsolidated sediments or quite soft rocks are widespread. In the Tertiary, Gondwanaland finally split completely apart, and India collided with the Eurasian plate (see plate tectonics). The previously existing mountain ranges of North America were again elevated, the Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians, and other ranges were formed in Europe, and in Asia the Himalayas arose. Widespread volcanic activity was prevalent. At the beginning of the period the mammals replaced the reptiles as the dominant animals; each epoch was marked by striking developments in mammalian life. Modern types of birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and invertebrates either were already numerous at the beginning of the period or appeared early in its history.

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