Quaternary Life on Land


The Quaternary is the most recent geologic period. The glaciations that characterise this period began about 2.6 million years ago. There have been roughly 50 glacial–interglacial cycles during the Pleistocene Epoch which comprised all of the Quaternary except the current interglacial interval, the Holocene. Pleistocene biota mostly responded to the series of rapid dramatic climatic changes by migrating to regions of acceptable climate. The constant reshuffling of biological communities led to the formation of many combinations of species for which there is no modern analogue. The end of the last glaciation saw the extinction of large numbers of large mammals (the Pleistocene megafauna) in Eurasia, Australia and the New World. The Late Pleistocene saw the rise and geographic dispersal of humans, including Neanderthals in Europe and southwest Asia, and modern humans who spread out of Africa into Europe, Asia, Australia and eventually the New World.

Key concepts:

  • Rapid climate change characterised most of the Quaternary.

  • The Quaternary and Late Tertiary saw the evolution of modern ecosystems.

  • Nonanalogue biological communities formed during the Pleistocene, as the ranges of individual species responded independently to climate change.

  • The Late Pleistocene–Holocene transition saw a major extinction event among megafaunal mammals.

  • The Pleistocene was also the most important interval of human evolution and dispersal.

Keywords: Quaternary; Pleistocene; plants; insects; mammals; glaciation; evolution; migration; extinction

Figure 1.

Stratigraphic subdivisions of the Late Tertiary and Quaternary Periods, showing the Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs.

Figure 2.

The Late Pleistocene fossil vertebrate fauna found in Natural Trap Cave, Wyoming. 1, Pleistocene lion; 2, dire wolf; 3, North American cheetah; 4, pronghorn antelope; 5, Pleistocene camels; 6, Columbian mammoth; 7, Pleistocene horses; 8, caribou; 9, bighorn sheep and 10, bald eagle.



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Further Reading

Anderson BG and Borns HW Jr (1994) The Ice Age World. Oslo, Norway: Scandinavian University Press.

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Gillespie AR, Porter SC, Atwarer BF and Rose J (eds) (2004) The Quaternary Period in the United States. Developments in Quaternary Science 1. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Guthrie RD (1990) Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe. The Story of Blue Babe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Lowe JJ and Walker MJC (1997) Reconstructing Quaternary Environments, 2nd edn. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Ltd.

Martin PS and Klein RG (eds) (1989) Quaternary Extinctions, A Prehistoric Revolution. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Sutcliffe AJ (1988) On the Track of Ice Age Mammals. London: British Museum of Natural History.

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Elias, Scott A(Apr 2010) Quaternary Life on Land. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001647.pub2]