Boom. Extinction. 65 million years ago, a huge chunk of rock from outer space smashed into what is now Mexico. The explosion was devastating, but the longer-term effects were worse. Dust was thrown into the upper atmosphere and blocked out sunlight, and in the ensuing cold and darkness Earth suffered its fifth and last mass extinction. The dinosaurs were the most famous casualties, but pterosaurs and giant marine reptiles were also wiped out.
Birds evolved from feathered dinosaurs – modern birds are essentially Velociraptors with beaks instead of snouts and wings instead of arms. The most famous early bird, Archaeopteryx, lived 150 million years ago. But in recent years slightly older fossils, such as Xiaotingia and Aurornis, have been found in China.
The dinosaurs were flourishing on land, and in the sea giant reptiles called ichthyosaurs had become the top predators. Then another disaster struck. We’re not sure what caused the Triassic extinction, but it killed off around 80% of species. In the aftermath, the dinosaurs became the dominant land animals and eventually reached titanic sizes. The biggest species whose mass is accurately known, Dreadnoughtus schrani, weighed about 59 tonnes.
At the same time that the dinosaurs were spreading and diversifying, the first mammals evolved. Their ancestors were reptiles called cynodonts, whose faces looked a little like those of dogs and may have had fur or whiskers. Early mammals such as Morganucodon were small and shrew-like, and probably only active at night. This may have spurred them to evolve warm-bloodedness: the ability to keep their body temperature constant.
Just as the reptiles were flourishing, life on Earth faced perhaps its greatest challenge. The Permian extinction was the worst mass extinction in the planet’s history, obliterating up to 96% of marine species and similar numbers of land animals. We don’t know for sure what caused it, but massive volcanic eruptions – creating what is now the Siberian Traps – may have been to blame. In the aftermath, the first dinosaurs evolved.
When the first reptiles appeared, Earth was in the middle of a long cold snap called the Late Paleozoic Ice Age. Reptiles evolved from newt-like amphibians. Unlike their ancestors they had tough, scaly skin and laid eggs with hard shells that did not have to be left in water. Thanks to these advantages, they quickly became the dominant land animals. The reptile-like Dimetrodon reached 4.5m long – but despite what you may have heard, it was not a dinosaur.