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.
This may sound strange, but flowers are a quite recent invention. There have been land plants for 465 million years, yet there were no flowers for over two-thirds of that time. Flowering plants only appeared in the middle of the dinosaur era. The equally-familiar grasses appeared even more recently. The oldest fossil grasses are just 70 million years old, although grass may have evolved a bit earlier than that.
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.
For the last time, all Earth’s continents came together to form one giant supercontinent. Known as Pangaea, it was surrounded by a world-spanning ocean called Panthalassa. It lasted until 175 million years ago, when it began to tear itself apart over tens of millions of years. Its shattered remnants became the familiar modern continents.