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Chapter 2:


Its Geographic and Climatic Changes.

North America in the Age of Reptiles would have seemed almost as strange to our eyes in its geography as in its animals and plants. The present outlines of its coast, its mountains and valleys, its rivers and lakes, have mostly arisen since that time. Even the more ancient parts of the continent have been profoundly modified through the incessant work of rain and rivers and of the waves, tending to wear down the land surfaces, of volcanic outbursts building them up, and of the more mysterious agencies which raise or depress vast stretches of mountain chains or even the whole area of a continent, and which tend on the whole so far as we can see, to restore or increase the relief of the continents, as the action of the surface waters tends to bring them down to or beneath the sea level.

Alternate Overflow and Emergence of Continents. In a broad way these agencies of elevation and of erosion have caused in their age-long struggle an alternation of periods of overflow and periods of continental emergence during geologic time. During the periods of overflow, great portions of the low-lying parts of the continents were submerged, and formed extensive but comparatively shallow seas. The mountains through long continued erosion were reduced to gentle and uniform slopes of comparatively slight elevation. Their materials were brought down by rivers to the sea-coast, and distributed as sedimentary formations over the shallow interior seas or along the margins of the continents. But this load of sediments, transferred from the dry land to the ocean margins and shallow seas, disturbed the balance of weight (isostasy) which normally keeps the continental platforms above the level of the ocean basins (which as shown by gravity measurement are underlain by materials of higher specific gravity than the continents). In due course of time, when the strain became sufficient, it was readjusted by earth movements of a slowness proportioned to their vastness. These movements while tending upon the whole to raise the continents to or sometimes beyond their former relief, did not reverse the action of erosion agencies in detail, but often produced new lines or areas of high elevation.

Fig. 2.: North America in the Later Cretacic Period.

Fig. 2.—North America in the Later Cretacic Period. Map outlines after Schuchert.

Geologic Periods. A geologic period is the record of one of these immense and long continued movements of alternate submergence and elevation of the continents. It begins, therefore, and ends with a time of emergence, and includes a long era of submergence.

These epochs of elevation are accompanied by the development of cold climates at the poles, and elsewhere of arid conditions in the interior of the continents. The epochs of submergence are accompanied by a warm, humid climate, more or less uniform from the equator to the poles.

The earth has very recently, in a geologic sense, passed through an epoch of extreme continental elevation the maximum of which was marked by the "Ice Age." The continents are still emerged for the most part almost to the borders of the "continental shelf" which forms their maximum limit. And in the icy covering of Greenland and Antarctica a considerable portion still remains of the great ice-sheets which at their maximum covered large parts of North America and Europe. We are now at the beginning of a long period of slow erosion and subsidence which, if this interpretation of the geologic record be correct, will in the course of time reduce the mountains to plains and submerge great parts of the lowlands beneath the ocean. As compensation for the lesser extent of dry land we may look forward to a more genial and favorable climate in the reduced areas that remain above water.

Fig. 3.: Relative Length of Ages of Reptiles, Mammals and Man.

Fig. 3.—Relative Length of Ages of Reptiles, Mammals and Man.

Length of Geologic Cycles. But these vast cycles of geographic and climatic change will take millions of years to accomplish their course. The brief span of human life, or even the few centuries of recorded civilization are far too short to show any perceptible change in climate due to this cause. The utmost stretch of a man's life will cover perhaps one-two hundred thousandth part of a geologic period. The time elapsed since the dawn of civilization is less than a three-thousandth part. Of the days and hours of this geologic year, our historic records cover but two or three minutes, our individual lives but a fraction of a second. We must not expect to find records of its changing seasons in human history, still less to observe them personally.

Fig. 4.: Relative Length of Prehistoric and Historic

Fig. 4.—Relative Length of Prehistoric and Historic Time.

There are indeed minor cycles of climate within this great cycle. The great Ice Age through which the earth has so recently passed was marked by alternations of severity and mildness of climate, of advance and recession of the glaciers, and within these smaller cycles are minor alternations whose effect upon the course of human history has been shown recently by Professor Huntington ("The Pulse of Asia"). But the great cycles of the geologic periods are of a scope far too vast for their changes to be perceptible to us except through their influence upon the course of evolution.

The Later Cycles of Geologic Time. The Reptilian Era opens with a period of extreme elevation, which rivalled that of the Glacial Epoch and was similarly accompanied by extensive glaciation of which some traces are preserved to our day in characteristic glacial boulders, ice scratches, and till, imbedded or inter-stratified in the strata of the Permian age. Between these two extremes of continental emergence, the Permian and the Pleistocene, we can trace six cycles of alternate submergence and elevation, as shown in the diagram (Fig. 5), representing the proportion of North America which is known to have been above water during the six geologic periods that intervene.

From this diagram it will appear that the six cycles or periods were by no means equal in the amount of overflow or complete recovery of the drowned lands. The Cretacic period was marked by a much more extensive and long continued flooding; the great plains west of the Mississippi were mostly under water from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. The earlier overflows were neither so extensive nor so long continued. The great uplift of the close of the Cretacic regained permanently the great central region and united East and West, and the overflows of the Age of Mammals were mostly limited to the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Sedimentary Formations. During the epochs of greatest overflow great marine formations were deposited over large areas of what is now dry land. These were followed as the land rose to sea level by extensive marsh and delta formations, and these in turn by scattered and fragmentary dry land deposits spread by rivers over their flood plains. In the marine formations are found the fossil remains of the sea-animals of the period; in the coast and delta formations are the remains of those which inhabited the marshes and forests of the coast regions; while the animals of the dryland, of plains and upland, left their remains in the river-plain formations.

Fig. 5.: Geologic Cycles and the Land Area of North

Fig. 5.—Geologic Cycles and the Land Area of North America (after Schuchert).

These last, however, fragmentary and loose and overlying the rest, were the first to be swept away by erosion during the periods of elevation; and of such formations in the Age of Reptiles very little, if anything, seems to have been preserved to our day. Consequently we know very little about the upland animals of those times, if as seems very probable, they were more or less different from the animals of the coast-forests and swamps. The river-plain deposits of the Age of Mammals on the other hand, are still quite extensive, especially those of its later epochs, and afford a fairly complete record in some parts of the continent of the upland fauna of those regions.

Occurrence of Dinosaur Bones. Dinosaur bones are found mostly in the great delta formations, and since those were accumulated chiefly in the early stages of great continental elevations, it follows that our acquaintance with Dinosaurs is mostly limited to those living at certain epochs during the Age of Reptiles. In point of fact so far as explorations have yet gone in this country, the Dinosaur fauna of the close of the Jurassic and beginning of the Comanchic and that of the later Cretacic are the only ones we know much about. The immense interval of time that preceded, and the no less vast stretch of time that separated them, is represented in the record of Dinosaur history by a multitude of tracks and a few imperfect skeletons assigned to the close of the Triassic period, and by a few fragments from formations which may be intermediate in age between the Jurassic-Comanchic and the late Cretacic. Consequently we cannot expect to trace among the Dinosaurs, the gradual evolution of different races, as we can do among the quadrupeds of the Age of Mammals.

Imperfection of the Geologic Record. The Age of Mammals in North America presents a moving picture of the successive stages in the evolution of modern quadrupeds; the Age of Reptiles shows (broadly considered) two photographs representing the land vertebrates of two long distant periods, as remote in time from each other as the later one is remote from the present day. Of the earlier stages in the evolution of the Dinosaurs there are but a few imperfect sketches in this country; in Europe the picture is more complete. In the course of time, as exploration progresses, we shall no doubt recover more complete records. But probably we shall never have so complete a history of the terrestrial life of the Age of Reptiles as we have of the Age of Mammals. The records are defective, a large part of them destroyed or forever inaccessible.

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