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The Eocene Epoch, lasting from about 56 to 34 million years ago (55.8 ± 0.2 to 33.9 ± 0.1 Ma), is a major division of the geologic timescale and the second epoch of the Palaeogene Period in the Cenozoic Era. The Eocene spans the time from the end of the Paleocene Epoch to the beginning of the Oligocene Epoch. The start of the Eocene is marked by the emergence of the first modern mammals. The end is set at a major extinction event called Grande Coupure (the "Great Break" in continuity), which may be related to the impact of one or more large bolides in Siberia and in what is now Chesapeake Bay. As with other geologic periods, the strata that define the start and end of the epoch are well identified,[1] though their exact dates are slightly uncertain.

The name Eocene comes from the Greek ἠώς (eos, dawn) and καινός (kainos, new) and refers to the "dawn" of modern ('new') mammalian fauna that appeared during the epoch.


The Eocene epoch is usually broken into Early and Late, or - more usually - Early, Middle, and Late subdivisions. The corresponding rocks are referred to as Lower, Middle, and Upper Eocene. The Faunal stages from youngest to oldest are:
Priabonian (37.2 ± 0.1 – 33.9 ± 0.1 Ma)
Bartonian (40.4 ± 0.2 – 37.2 ± 0.1 Ma)
Lutetian (48.6 ± 0.2 – 40.4 ± 0.2 Ma)
Ypresian (55.8 ± 0.2 – 48.6 ± 0.2 Ma)

The Ypresian and occasionally the Lutetian constitute the Lower, the Priabonian and sometimes the Bartonian the Upper subsection; alternatively, the Lutetian and Bartonian are united as the Middle Eocene.


Earth's surface temperatures generally rose from the late Paleocene through the Early Eocene (~59 - 50 Ma), reaching maximum Cenozoic temperatures during the Early Eocene Climatic Optimum (EECO). Superimposed on this warming were a series of "hyperthermals". These are best described as geologically brief (<200 kyr) events characterized by rapid and extreme global warming. The most prominent of these is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or Initial Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM or IETM), which began at the Paleocene-Eocene Boundary. This was an episode of rapid and intense warming (up to 7 °C at high latitudes) that lasted less than 200,000 years.[2] The Thermal Maximum coincided with a major mammalian turnover on land (that distinguishes Eocene fauna from Paleocene fauna), and an extinction of many benthic foraminifera species in the deep sea.

The Eocene global climate was perhaps the most homogeneous of the Cenozoic; the temperature gradient from equator to pole was only half that of today's, and deep ocean currents were exceptionally warm.[3] The polar regions were much warmer than today, perhaps as mild as the modern-day Pacific Northwest; temperate forests extended right to the poles, while rainy tropical climates extended as far north as 45°. The difference was greatest in the temperate latitudes; the climate in the tropics however, was probably similar to today's.[4] The recent discovery of a giant snake (estimated length 13 m) in Colombia that may have lived during the Eocene suggests, on the contrary, that the tropics were much warmer than today,[5][6] a conclusion in accord with numerical simulations of the climate during the Eocene.[7]

Although the global climate remained comparatively warm throughout the rest of the Eocene it was this epoch that marked the start of a slow global cooling trend, possibly triggered by the Arctic Ocean Azolla event and the formation of the Antarctic circumpolar current following the final break up of Gondwana. This trend would eventually lead to the Pleistocene glaciations.

A global paleogeographic reconstruction of the Earth during the Eocene, some 50 million years ago.

During the Eocene, the continents continued to drift toward their present positions.

At the beginning of the period, Australia and Antarctica remained connected, and warm equatorial currents mixed with colder Antarctic waters, distributing the heat around the planet and keeping global temperatures high. But when Australia split from the southern continent around 45 Ma, the warm equatorial currents were deflected away from Antarctica, and an isolated cold water channel developed between the two continents. The Antarctic region cooled down, and the ocean surrounding Antarctica began to freeze, sending cold water and icefloes north, reinforcing the cooling.

The northern supercontinent of Laurasia began to break up, as Europe, Greenland and North America drifted apart.

In western North America, mountain building started in the Eocene, and huge lakes formed in the high flat basins among uplifts, resulting in the deposition of the Green River Formation lagerstätte.

In Europe, the Tethys Sea finally vanished, while the uplift of the Alps isolated its final remnant, the Mediterranean, and created another shallow sea with island archipelagos to the north. Though the North Atlantic was opening, a land connection appears to have remained between North America and Europe since the faunas of the two regions are very similar.

India continued its journey away from Africa and began its collision with Asia, folding the Himalayas into existence.

It is hypothesized that the Eocene hothouse world was caused by runaway global warming from released methane clathrates deep in the oceans. The clathrates were buried beneath mud that was disturbed as the oceans warmed. Methane (CH4) has ten to twenty times the greenhouse gas effect of carbon dioxide (CO2).


At the beginning of the Eocene, the high temperatures and warm oceans created a moist, balmy environment, with forests spreading throughout the Earth from pole to pole. Apart from the driest deserts, Earth must have been entirely covered in forests.

Polar forests were quite extensive. Fossils and even preserved remains of trees such as swamp cypress and dawn redwood from the Eocene have been found on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic. The preserved remains are not fossils, but actual pieces preserved in oxygen-poor water in the swampy forests of the time and then buried before they had the chance to decompose. Even at that time, Ellesmere Island was only a few degrees in latitude further south than it is today. Fossils of subtropical and even tropical trees and plants from the Eocene have also been found in Greenland and Alaska. Tropical rainforests grew as far north as the Pacific Northwest and Europe.

Palm trees were growing as far north as Alaska and northern Europe during the early Eocene, although they became less abundant as the climate cooled. Dawn redwoods were far more extensive as well.

Cooling began mid-period, and by the end of the Eocene continental interiors had begun to dry out, with forests thinning out considerably in some areas. The newly-evolved grasses were still confined to river banks and lake shores, and had not yet expanded into plains and savannas.

The cooling also brought seasonal changes. Deciduous trees, better able to cope with large temperature changes, began to overtake evergreen tropical species. By the end of the period, deciduous forests covered large parts of the northern continents, including North America, Eurasia and the Arctic, and rainforests held on only in equatorial South America, Africa, India and Australia.

Antarctica, which began the Eocene fringed with a warm temperate to sub-tropical rainforest, became much colder as the period progressed; the heat-loving tropical flora was wiped out, and by the beginning of the Oligocene, the continent hosted deciduous forests and vast stretches of tundra.

Mesonyx, a carnivorous ungulate
Fossil nummulitid foraminiferans showing microspheric and megalospheric individuals; Eocene of the United Arab Emirates; scale in mm.

The oldest known fossils of most of the modern mammal orders appear within a brief period during the early Eocene. At the beginning of the Eocene, several new mammal groups arrived in North America. These modern mammals, like artiodactyls, perissodactyls and primates, had features like long, thin legs, feet and hands capable of grasping, as well as differentiated teeth adapted for chewing. Dwarf forms reigned. All the members of the new mammal orders were small, under 10 kg; based on comparisons of tooth size, Eocene mammals were only 60% of the size of the primitive Paleocene mammals that preceded them. They were also smaller than the mammals that followed them. It is assumed that the hot Eocene temperatures favored smaller animals that were better able to manage the heat.

Both groups of modern ungulates (hoofed animals) became prevalent because of a major radiation between Europe and North America, along with carnivorous ungulates like Mesonyx. Early forms of many other modern mammalian orders appeared, including bats, proboscidians, primates, rodents and marsupials. Older primitive forms of mammals declined in variety and importance. Important Eocene land fauna fossil remains have been found in western North America, Europe, Patagonia, Egypt and southeast Asia. Marine fauna are best known from South Asia and the southeast United States.

Reptile fossils from this time, such as fossils of pythons and turtles, are abundant. The remains of a giant snake of the size of a school bus has recently been discovered;[6] such a massive snake would have not survived were the tropics as warm as today, contradicting previous conclusions drawn from other proxies for temperature.[citation needed]

During the Eocene, plants and marine faunas became quite modern. Many modern bird orders first appeared in the Eocene.

Prorastomus, an early sirenian

The Eocene oceans were warm and teeming with fish and other sea life. The first Carcharinid sharks appeared, as did early marine mammals, including Basilosaurus, an early species of whale that is thought to be descended from land animals that existed earlier in the Eocene, the hoofed predators called mesonychids, of which Mesonyx was a member. The first sirenians, relatives of the elephants, also appeared at this time.

Grande Coupure
The "end Eocene" event.
Main article: Eocene-Oligocene extinction event

The Grande Coupure, or "great break" in continuity,[8] with a major European turnover in mammalian fauna about 33.5 Ma, marks the end of the last phase of Eocene assemblages, the Priabonian, and the arrival in Europe of Asian immigrants. The Grande Coupure is characterized by widespread extinctions and allopatric speciation in small isolated relict populations.[9] It was given its name in 1910 by the Swiss palaeontologist Hans Georg Stehlin,[10] to characterise the dramatic turnover of European mammalian fauna, which he placed at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. A comparable turnover in Asian fauna has since been called the "Mongolian Remodelling".

The Grande Coupure marks a break between endemic European faunas before the break and mixed faunas with a strong Asian component afterwards. J. J. Hooker and his team summarized the break:[11]

"Pre-Grande Coupure faunas are dominated by the perissodact family Palaeotheriidae (distant horse relatives), six families of artiodactyls (cloven-hoofed mammals) (Anoplotheriidae, Xiphodontidae, Choeropotamidae, Cebochoeridae, Dichobunidae and Amphimerycidae), the rodent family Pseudosciuridae, the primate families Omomyidae and Adapidae, and the archontan family Nyctitheriidae.

"Post-Grande Coupure faunas include the true rhinoceros (family Rhinocerotidae), three artiodactyl families (Entelodontidae, Anthracotheriidae and Gelocidae) related respectively to pigs, hippos and ruminants, the rodent families Eomyidae, Cricetidae (hamsters) and Castoridae (beavers), and the lipotyphlan family Erinaceidae (hedgehogs). The speciose genus Palaeotherium plus Anoplotherium and the families Xiphodontidae and Amphimerycidae were observed to disappear completely.

"Only the marsupial family Herpetotheriidae, the artiodactyl family Cainotheriidae, and the rodent families Theridomyidae and Gliridae (dormice) crossed the faunal divide undiminished."

Whether this abrupt change was caused by climate change associated with the earliest polar glaciations[12] and a major fall in sea levels, or by competition with taxa dispersing from Asia, few argue for an isolated single cause. More spectacular causes are related to the impact of one or more large bolides in northern hemisphere at Popigai, Toms Canyon and Chesapeake Bay. Improved correlation of northwest European successions to global events[11] confirms the Grande Coupure as occurring in the earliest Oligocene, with a hiatus of about 350 millennia prior to the first record of post-Grande Coupure Asian immigrant taxa.

An element of the paradigm of the Grande Coupure was the apparent extinction of all European primates at the Coupure: the recent discovery[13] of a mouse-sized early Oligocene omomyid, reflecting the better survival chances of small mammals, further undercut the Grand Coupure paradigm.

See also

* Green River Formation in western North America
* List of fossil sites (with link directory)
* London Clay
* Messel Pit in Germany
* Bolca in Italy


1. ^ The extinction of the Hantkeninidae, a planktonic family of foraminifera became generally accepted as marking the Eocene-Oligocene boundary; in 1998 Massignano in Umbria, central Italy, was designated the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP).
2. ^ NASA GISS: Science Briefs: Ocean Burps and Climate Change?
3. ^ http://www.ga.gov.au/odp/publications/tnotes/tn20-4/leg171c.html
4. ^ Stanley, 508
5. ^ Huber, M (February 2009). "Climate change: Snakes tell a torrid tale". Nature 457 (7230): 669–71. doi:10.1038/457669a. ISSN 0028-0836. PMID 19194439.
6. ^ a b Head, Jj; Bloch, Ji; Hastings, Ak; Bourque, Jr; Cadena, Ea; Herrera, Fa; Polly, Pd; Jaramillo, Ca (February 2009). "Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures". Nature 457 (7230): 715–7. doi:10.1038/nature07671. ISSN 0028-0836. PMID 19194448.
7. ^ Huber and Sloan 2001, Geophysical Research Letters, 28, 3481-3484.
8. ^ also termed the MP 21 event.
9. ^ Called "dispersal-generated origination" in Hooker et al. 2004
10. ^ H.G. Stehlen, 1910. "Remarques sur les faunules de Mammifères des couches eocenes et oligocenes du Bassin de Paris," in Bulletin de la Société Géologique de France, 4'.9, pp 488-520.
11. ^ a b Hooker, J.J.; Collinson, M.E.; Sille, N.P. (2004). "Eocene-Oligocene mammalian faunal turnover in the Hampshire Basin, UK: calibration to the global time scale and the major cooling event". Journal of the Geological Society 161: 161. doi:10.1144/0016-764903-091.
12. ^ A major cooling event preceded the Grande Coupure, based on pollen studies in the Paris Basin conducted by Chateauneuf (J.J. Chateauneuf, 1980. "Palynostratigraphie et paleoclimatologie de l'Éocene superieur et de l'Oligocene du Bassin de Paris (France)" in Mémoires du Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières, 116 1980).
13. ^ Köhler, M; Moyà-Solà, S (December 1999). "A finding of oligocene primates on the European continent" (Free full text). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96 (25): 14664–7. doi:10.1073/pnas.96.25.14664. ISSN 0027-8424. PMID 10588762. PMC 24493. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=10588762.


* Ogg, Jim; June, 2004, Overview of Global Boundary Stratotype Sections and Points (GSSP's) http://www.stratigraphy.org/gssp.htm Accessed April 30, 2006.
* Stanley, Steven M. Earth System History. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1999. ISBN 0-7167-2882-6

External links

* PaleoMap Project
* Paleos Eocene page
* PBS Deep Time: Eocene
* Eocene Fossils
* Eocene and Oligocene Fossils
* Eocene Primate, Carnegie Museum of Natural History
* The UPenn Fossil Forest Project, focusing on the Eocene polar forests in Ellesmere Island, Canada
* Basilosaurus Primitive Eocene Whales
* Basilosaurus - The plesiosaur that wasn't....
* Eocene Whale Origins
* Detailed maps of Tertiary Western North America
* Map of Eocene Earth
* Eocene Microfossils: 25+ images of Foraminifera

Geologic time scale

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