From the Fall of Dinos to the Rise of Humans

Over the past several months, we’ve taken
you on a journey through geologic history, one era at a time. If you haven’t been on that trip with us
yet, those videos, they’re all in a playlist down below. And by now, you’re probably tired of hearing
us tell you that you’re related to all of these bizarre organisms that look nothing
like you. Like, in the Mesozoic Era, we introduced you
to the Megazostrodon, a little insectivore that lived among the dinosaurs as one of the earliest
known mammals. At least that’s a mammal, so you can see
the connection, right? But what about Dimetrodon? It lived in the era before the Mesozoic, in
the Paleozoic. It’s not our direct ancestor, but it was
a stem mammal, part of the group of animals that descended from reptiles to give rise
to mammals. And when you look at it, well … it’s not
exactly like looking in a mirror, is it? By the time we follow our lineage back even
farther, to LECA, the ancestor of all eukaryotes, and LUCA, the single-celled ancestor
of everything that’s alive today, we’re talking about forms of life whose lives and
structures we can only speculate about. But, now you’ve arrived at the Cenozoic
Era. And in fact, you’ve always been there! Because that’s the era we’re in now! And the Cenozoic is when many organisms took
shapes and behaviors that you could actually recognize. Most of the mammals and birds that you can
think of appeared during this era. And reptiles went through some surprising
changes, but they eventually settled into the ranges they inhabit today. But perhaps more importantly–for us at least- the Cenozoic marks the rise of organisms that look a lot like you and me. OK to be fair, if you traveled back to the
start of the Cenozoic Era, 66 million years ago, there would still be a lot that you would not
recognize. It was so warm that the whole world was full
of tropical and subtropical forests, even at the poles. And for about the first 10 million years of
the Cenozoic, the world was still recovering from the K-Pg extinction event that wiped
out the non avian dinosaurs. This was the very beginning of the Paleogene
Period, and the world was … kind of empty. Along with the dinosaurs, almost all other
large land vertebrates had vanished. Many terrestrial plants were gone too, and
in the oceans, the giant marine reptiles and even most of the plankton had disappeared. Because of this scarcity of life, during the
first chapter of this period, known as Paleocene Epoch, there were plenty of open ecological
niches, and the surviving forms of life began to fill them. The last remaining dinosaurs — birds — had
begun to diversify into some pretty familiar forms. For example, around this time, we begin to
see the likes of Waimanu, a small, flightless waterbird from New Zealand that’s one of
the earliest known penguins. Likewise, in New Mexico, the appearance of
Tsidiiyazhi tells us that the ancestors of mousebirds, found today all over sub-Saharan
Africa, were already on the scene. Meanwhile, on the forest floor, some early,
ungulate-like mammals began to take over. At first, these mammals had it pretty easy,
because there weren’t many predators. But plenty of insectivorous mammals had survived
the extinction. And it didn’t take very long for some of
them to start developing a taste for bigger prey. These were the creodonts, predators that first
appeared in North America like the small, kinda dog-like Galecyon as well as, Oxyaena,
which looked more like a cat. For a long time, scientists thought that these
small meat-eaters were the direct ancestors of today’s modern carnivores. But in recent years we’ve learned that they
were actually a separate lineage, one that happened to converge on the same strategies
and general body plans of the carnivores we know today. Now, other mammals made their homes in the
trees, including some of the first primate-like species: the Plesiadapiforms. They first showed up in Europe and North America,
and even though most researchers think they weren’t direct ancestors of primates, they
can still tell us a lot about what the earliest primates might have looked like. Purgatorius, for example, looks a lot like
a rat. But it had long, grasping fingers, useful
for life in the trees, and wide teeth for chewing things like fruits and leaves. But like other plesiadapiforms, Purgatorius
had claws instead of nails, and it was missing one of the key features of a true primate
— its eyes didn’t face forward. So, by the middle of the Paleocene Epoch,
animal life was on the rebound. And then it started to get really warm. About 55 million years ago, the average temperature
on land went up by 5 to 8 degrees Celsius … in less than 20,000 years. This spate of global warming marks the transition
to the next epoch, the Eocene, and it’s known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum,
or PETM. Remember this one If you’ve seen our episode on this phenomenon
already, then you know that we’re not totally sure what caused it. It might’ve had to do with volcanic eruptions
or melting methane ice on the ocean floor that released greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Either way, as a result, a world that was
already warmer today’s started to get even hotter. At the poles, lush ecosystems took hold, while
parts of western North America became arid. This was great for animals that thrived
in the heat, like reptiles. How great? Well, this is when the world saw the biggest
snake that ever lived. Titanoboa slithered through South America
during this hot spell — all 13 meters of it, about twice the size of a modern anaconda. It feasted on fish but also crocodilians and,
also anything else it could get its jaws around–which was most things Also in the water were reptiles like the giant
turtle Carbonemys, which, unlike our shelled friends we know today, were about 3 meters
long. And it fed on mammals and other reptiles While all this was going on, some of the first
true primates were appearing. The tiny Omomyids for example, had grasping
fingers with nails instead of claws, and giant eyes like tarsiers’. Then, about 49 million years ago, this warming
trend shifted, and the world began its long journey from a greenhouse to an icehouse. The shift may have been caused, at least in
part, by what’s known as the Azolla event, where massive amounts of the small, moss-like
Azolla fern grew in the Arctic. These plants took up to half of the carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere — enough that the climate began to cool. And a lot of mammals from the Paleocene couldn’t
handle the colder, drier weather of the late Eocene, so, by about 40 million years ago,
many of them had gone extinct. At least 45 groups disappeared from Asia,
like the Eurymylids, a family thought to be closely related to early rodents. In North America and Europe, the changing
forests caused problems for mammals that lived in the trees — including primates. By the late Eocene, practically all of the
primates on those continents died out. But at the same time, some modern mammal groups
start to show up in the fossil record, like familiar rodents and the odd-toed ungulates
— the group that includes today’s horses, rhinos, and tapirs. And it’s in the late Eocene that some of
the simians, the clade that includes monkeys and apes, begin to appear in the fossil record. By the time the next Epoch, the Oligocene beings around 34 million years ago We start to see the likes of Aegyptopithecus in northern Africa. An early member of the group that includes what are known as the Old World Monkeys and eventually the apes But now the global
temperature took an even steeper plunge. With ice sheets beginning to form in Antarctica And soon, another extinction event began — this
one mostly in Europe. It’s known as the Grande Coupure, and like
most other extinctions, we haven’t figured out all the details of what caused it. But we know the drop in temperature would
have made it hard for some of the older groups of mammals to survive. It might have also lowered sea levels enough
to allow for more migration from Asia and therefore, more competition. Almost all of the tree-dwelling European mammals
were wiped out, and all kinds of new creatures moved in, like true carnivores, and artiodactyls
— the group of ungulates that includes animals like today’s pigs, deer, and cattle. Then, in the cooler, drier climate of the
Oligocene, a new habitat appeared: grassland. And this was an enormous deal, because the
fibrous grass was much harder to digest than softer vegetation like leaves, which meant
that animals had to adapt, or die. Among the herbivores, the even-toed ungulates
known as ruminants had the advantage, because they had an extra stomach chamber where grass
could be fermented and partly digested, then sent back to the mouth to be chewed again. In the late Oligocene, there was also a major
split among the simians. Around 26 million years ago, the first so-called
New World monkeys appear in the fossil record, in South America. We’re not really sure how they got there,
although the lower sea levels might have helped them get around. These New World monkeys retained a lot of
the traits of earlier monkeys, like their small size and fruit-based diet. Meanwhile, the larger Old World monkeys in
Africa and Asia began to take a different route. Many of these Old World monkeys had a broader
diet, and some started to spend more of their lives on the ground. Now, the transition from the Paleogene to
the next period of the Cenozoic, the Neogene, is a subtle one, usually recognized by changes
in microscopic fossils of things like algae and foraminifera. But the events that unfolded during this period,
starting 23 million years ago, were hard to miss. The Neogene opened with the Miocene Epoch
as continental plates were on the move, kicking off era of mountain-building that continues
today. The Himalayas were forming, as the Indian
plate rammed into Asia, while collisions in Europe started to create the Pyrenees and
the Alps. Meanwhile, in Africa, another transition was
underway, as the first apes evolved from the Old World monkeys. We’re not completely sure what the first
ape was, but a transitional genus called Proconsul first appeared around the start of the Neogene
that may have been close to the start of the ape lineage. The most obvious trait of these animals was
their lack of a tail. But they also had more flexible shoulder joints;
broad, flat rib cages; and a shorter spine. Among other things, these traits combined
to make it easier for apes to swing from the trees and — eventually — to balance on
two legs. For the most part, the rest of the Miocene
continued the trends that began in the Oligocene. As the world continued to cool, forests began
to shrink while grasslands spread. For animals that grazed instead of browsing
on trees, they had vast new expanses to disperse to But almost all of the herbivores that couldn’t
survive on grass — like browsing horses — began to disappear. In the oceans, the bizarre marine mammals
like Desmostylia had disappeared. But new forms of life start showing up in
the fossil record — like sea otters and other animals that made their homes in the world’s
first kelp forests. And in the meantime, the apes continued to
diversify. Over the next several million years, the ancestors
of each of the great apes split off from the ancestors of humans. The ancestors of orangutans diverged from
our lineage first, about 13 million years ago. The ancestors of gorillas were next, around
10 million years ago; followed by the ancestors of chimpanzees and bonobos, around 7 million
years ago. By the time the Miocene ended 5.33 million
years ago, the lineage that would lead to humans was established. In fact, most of the groups of animals around
today had evolved. The world was getting closer to something
we would truly recognize. Sure, there was still the occasional gomphothere
or three-toed horse. But other groups, like canids, bears, and
whales, were fully fledged. The transition to the next epoch, the Pliocene,
involved a brief period of warming, followed by an even faster drop in temperature. South America, which had detached from Antarctica
in the Oligocene, finally bumped into North America, cutting off the Atlantic Ocean from
the warm currents circling the equator. And as the climate continued to cool, our
ancestors — the hominins — were taking over the expanding grasslands. The first known hominins, Australopithecus,
appear in the fossil record around 4 million years ago. Researchers think some of these early hominins
were actually able to digest grass, which would have made it easier for them to find
food no matter what the climate was. Over time, they became better runners and
more skilled hunters. And there’s evidence that toward the end
of the Pliocene, they had begun using stone tools. By 2.8 million years ago — just a couple
hundred thousand years before the end of the epoch — a new genus, Homo, appeared on the
scene in the form of a lower mandible found in Ethiopia, known as the Ledi Jaw. The end of the Pliocene also marked the end
of the Neogene, and the start of our current period of the Cenozoic, the Quaternary, about
two and a half million years ago. And this most recent chapter in the history
of life is so packed with crucial developments — from the Last Ice Age to the rise and spread
of Homo sapiens — that we we’ll handle them all in a separate episode. But by now you’ve seen how the events of
the Cenozoic truly shaped our world … and us. It began with a world recovering from extinction,
with millions of niches for mammals to fill. And it peaked with a warming event that helped
spur the rise of the primates. Yes, you might not be the spitting image of
Aegyptopithecus, but the Cenozoic Era is when the world as we know it came to be. More than any other era in history, it is
our time. Thanks for watching me today! Now, what do you want to know about the story
of life on Earth? Let us know in the comments. And don’t forget to go to
to subscribe! As part of us trying to give you things with which to support this show Eons has developed a really kind of beautiful piece of art in the form of a poster that’s now available at I’ve got mine. Did you get yours?

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