The Devonian is a geologic period and system of the Paleozoic, spanning 60 million years from the end of the Silurian, 419.2 million years ago (Mya), to the beginning of the Carboniferous, 358.9 Mya. It is named after Devon, England, where rocks from this period were first studied.
The first significant adaptive radiation of life on dry land occurred during the Devonian. Free-sporing vascular plants began to spread across dry land, forming extensive forests which covered the continents. By the middle of the Devonian, several groups of plants had evolved leaves and true roots, and by the end of the period the first seed-bearing plants appeared. Various terrestrial arthropods also became well-established.
Fish reached substantial diversity during this time, leading the Devonian to often be dubbed the "Age of Fish". The first ray-finned and lobe-finned bony fish appeared, while the placoderms began dominating almost every known aquatic environment. The ancestors of all four-limbed vertebrates (tetrapods) began adapting to walking on land, as their strong pectoral and pelvic fins gradually evolved into legs. In the oceans, primitive sharks became more numerous than in the Silurian and Late Ordovician.
The first ammonites, species of molluscs, appeared. Trilobites, the mollusk-like brachiopods and the great coral reefs, were still common. The Late Devonian extinction which started about 375 million years ago severely affected marine life, killing off all placodermi, and all trilobites, save for a few species of the order Proetida.
419.2–358.9 million years ago
|Mean atmospheric O
2 content over period duration
|c. 15 vol %
(75 % of modern level
|Mean atmospheric CO
2 content over period duration
|c. 2200 ppm
(8 times pre-industrial level)
|Mean surface temperature over period duration||c. 20 °C
(6 °C above modern level)
|Sea level (above present day)||Relatively steady around 189m, gradually falling to 120m through period|
The period is named after Devon, a county in southwestern England, where a controversial argument in the 1830s over the age and structure of the rocks found distributed throughout the county was eventually resolved by the definition of the Devonian period in the geological timescale. The Great Devonian Controversy was a long period of vigorous argument and counter-argument between the main protagonists of Roderick Murchison with Adam Sedgwick against Henry De la Beche supported by George Bellas Greenough. Murchison and Sedgwick won the debate and named the period they proposed as the Devonian System.
While the rock beds that define the start and end of the Devonian period are well identified, the exact dates are uncertain. According to the International Commission on Stratigraphy (Ogg, 2004), the Devonian extends from the end of the Silurian 419.2 Mya, to the beginning of the Carboniferous 358.9 Mya (in North America, the beginning of the Mississippian subperiod of the Carboniferous).
In nineteenth-century texts the Devonian has been called the "Old Red Age", after the red and brown terrestrial deposits known in the United Kingdom as the Old Red Sandstone in which early fossil discoveries were found. Another common term is "Age of the Fishes", referring to the evolution of several major groups of fish that took place during the period. Older literature on the Anglo-Welsh basin divides it into the Downtonian, Dittonian, Breconian and Farlovian stages, the latter three of which are placed in the Devonian.
The Devonian has also erroneously been characterized as a "greenhouse age", due to sampling bias: most of the early Devonian-age discoveries came from the strata of western Europe and eastern North America, which at the time straddled the Equator as part of the supercontinent of Euramerica where fossil signatures of widespread reefs indicate tropical climates that were warm and moderately humid but in fact the climate in the Devonian differed greatly during its epochs and between geographic regions. For example, during the Early Devonian, arid conditions were prevalent through much of the world including Siberia, Australia, North America, and China, but Africa and South America had a warm temperate climate. In the Late Devonian, by contrast, arid conditions were less prevalent across the world and temperate climates were more common.
The Devonian Period is formally broken into Early, Middle and Late subdivisions. The rocks corresponding to those epochs are referred to as belonging to the Lower, Middle and Upper parts of the Devonian System.
The Middle Devonian comprised two subdivisions: first the Eifelian, which then gave way to the Givetian . During this time the jawless agnathan fishes began to decline in diversity in freshwater and marine environments partly due to drastic environmental changes and partly due to the increasing competition, predation and diversity of jawed fishes. The shallow, warm, oxygen-depleted waters of Devonian inland lakes, surrounded by primitive plants, provided the environment necessary for certain early fish to develop such essential characteristics as well developed lungs, and the ability to crawl out of the water and onto the land for short periods of time.
Finally, the Late Devonian started with the Frasnian, to , during which the first forests took shape on land. The first tetrapods appeared in the fossil record in the ensuing Famennian subdivision, the beginning and end of which are marked with extinction events. This lasted until the end of the Devonian, .
The Devonian was a relatively warm period, and probably lacked any glaciers. The temperature gradient from the equator to the poles was not as large as it is today. The weather was also very arid, mostly along the equator where it was the driest. Reconstruction of tropical sea surface temperature from conodont apatite implies an average value of 30 °C (86 °F) in the Early Devonian. CO2 levels dropped steeply throughout the Devonian period as the burial of the newly evolved forests drew carbon out of the atmosphere into sediments; this may be reflected by a Mid-Devonian cooling of around 5 °C (9 °F). The Late Devonian warmed to levels equivalent to the Early Devonian; while there is no corresponding increase in CO2 concentrations, continental weathering increases (as predicted by warmer temperatures); further, a range of evidence, such as plant distribution, points to a Late Devonian warming. The climate would have affected the dominant organisms in reefs; microbes would have been the main reef-forming organisms in warm periods, with corals and stromatoporoid sponges taking the dominant role in cooler times. The warming at the end of the Devonian may even have contributed to the extinction of the stromatoporoids.
The continent Euramerica (or Laurussia) was created in the early Devonian by the collision of Laurentia and Baltica, which rotated into the natural dry zone along the Tropic of Capricorn, which is formed as much in Paleozoic times as nowadays by the convergence of two great air-masses, the Hadley cell and the Ferrel cell. In these near-deserts, the Old Red Sandstone sedimentary beds formed, made red by the oxidized iron (hematite) characteristic of drought conditions.
Near the equator, the plate of Euramerica and Gondwana were starting to meet, beginning the early stages of the assembling of Pangaea. This activity further raised the northern Appalachian Mountains and formed the Caledonian Mountains in Great Britain and Scandinavia.
The west coast of Devonian North America, by contrast, was a passive margin with deep silty embayments, river deltas and estuaries, found today in Idaho and Nevada; an approaching volcanic island arc reached the steep slope of the continental shelf in Late Devonian times and began to uplift deep water deposits, a collision that was the prelude to the mountain-building episode at the beginning of the Carboniferous called the Antler orogeny.
Sea levels were high worldwide, and much of the land lay under shallow seas, where tropical reef organisms lived. The deep, enormous Panthalassa (the "universal ocean") covered the rest of the planet. Other minor oceans were the Paleo-Tethys Ocean, Proto-Tethys Ocean, Rheic Ocean, and Ural Ocean (which was closed during the collision with Siberia and Baltica).
Sea levels in the Devonian were generally high. Marine faunas continued to be dominated by bryozoa, diverse and abundant brachiopods, the enigmatic hederellids, microconchids and corals. Lily-like crinoids (animals, their resemblance to flowers notwithstanding) were abundant, and trilobites were still fairly common. Among vertebrates, jaw-less armored fish (ostracoderms) declined in diversity, while the jawed fish (gnathostomes) simultaneously increased in both the sea and fresh water. Armored placoderms were numerous during the lower stages of the Devonian Period and became extinct in the Late Devonian, perhaps because of competition for food against the other fish species. Early cartilaginous (Chondrichthyes) and bony fishes (Osteichthyes) also become diverse and played a large role within the Devonian seas. The first abundant genus of shark, Cladoselache, appeared in the oceans during the Devonian Period. The great diversity of fish around at the time has led to the Devonian being given the name "The Age of Fish" in popular culture.
The first ammonites also appeared during or slightly before the early Devonian Period around 400 Mya.
A now dry barrier reef, located in present-day Kimberley Basin of northwest Australia, once extended a thousand kilometers, fringing a Devonian continent. Reefs in general are built by various carbonate-secreting organisms that have the ability to erect wave-resistant frameworks close to sea level. The main contributors of the Devonian reefs were unlike modern reefs, which are constructed mainly by corals and calcareous algae. They were composed of calcareous algae and coral-like stromatoporoids, and tabulate and rugose corals, in that order of importance.
By the Devonian Period, life was well underway in its colonization of the land. The moss forests and bacterial and algal mats of the Silurian were joined early in the period by primitive rooted plants that created the first stable soils and harbored arthropods like mites, scorpions, trigonotarbids and myriapods (although arthropods appeared on land much earlier than in the Early Devonian and the existence of fossils such as Climactichnites suggest that land arthropods may have appeared as early as the Cambrian). Also the first possible fossils of insects appeared around 416 Mya in the Early Devonian. Evidence for the earliest tetrapods takes the form of trace fossils in shallow lagoon environments within a marine carbonate platform/shelf during the Middle Devonian, although these traces have been questioned and an interpretation as fish feeding traces (Piscichnus) has been advanced.
Many Early Devonian plants did not have true roots or leaves like extant plants and vascular tissue has yet to be observed in many of those plants. Some of the early land plants such as Drepanophycus likely spread by vegetative growth and primitive spores. The earliest land plants such as Cooksonia consisted of leafless, dichotomous axes and terminal sporangia and were generally very short-statured, and grew hardly more than a few centimeters tall. By far the largest land organism during this period was the enigmatic Prototaxites, which was possibly the fruiting body of an enormous fungus, rolled liverwort mat, or another organism of uncertain affinities that stood more than 8 meters tall, and towered over the low, carpet-like vegetation. By the Middle Devonian, shrub-like forests of primitive plants existed: lycophytes, horsetails, ferns, and progymnosperms had evolved. Most of these plants had true roots and leaves, and many were quite tall. The earliest known trees, from the genus Wattieza, appeared in the Late Devonian around 385 Mya. In the Late Devonian, the tree-like ancestral Progymnosperm Archaeopteris which had conifer-like true wood and fern-like foliage and the cladoxylopsids grew. (See also: lignin.) These are the oldest known trees of the world's first forests. By the end of the Devonian, the first seed-forming plants had appeared. This rapid appearance of so many plant groups and growth forms has been called the "Devonian Explosion".
The 'greening' of the continents acted as a carbon sink, and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide may have dropped. This may have cooled the climate and led to a massive extinction event. See Late Devonian extinction.
Primitive arthropods co-evolved with this diversified terrestrial vegetation structure. The evolving co-dependence of insects and seed-plants that characterized a recognizably modern world had its genesis in the Late Devonian period. The development of soils and plant root systems probably led to changes in the speed and pattern of erosion and sediment deposition. The rapid evolution of a terrestrial ecosystem that contained copious animals opened the way for the first vertebrates to seek out a terrestrial living. By the end of the Devonian, arthropods were solidly established on the land.
A major extinction occurred at the beginning of the last phase of the Devonian period, the Famennian faunal stage (the Frasnian-Famennian boundary), about 372.2 Mya, when all the fossil agnathan fishes, save for the psammosteid heterostraci, suddenly disappeared. A second strong pulse closed the Devonian period. The Late Devonian extinction was one of five major extinction events in the history of the Earth's biota, and was more drastic than the familiar extinction event that closed the Cretaceous.
The Devonian extinction crisis primarily affected the marine community, and selectively affected shallow warm-water organisms rather than cool-water organisms. The most important group to be affected by this extinction event were the reef-builders of the great Devonian reef-systems.
Amongst the severely affected marine groups were the brachiopods, trilobites, ammonites, conodonts, and acritarchs, as well as jawless fish, and all placoderms. Land plants as well as freshwater species, such as our tetrapod ancestors, were relatively unaffected by the Late Devonian extinction event (but see  for a counterargument that the Devonian extinctions nearly wiped out the tetrapods).
The reasons for the Late Devonian extinctions are still unknown, and all explanations remain speculative. Canadian paleontologist Digby McLaren suggested in 1969 that the Devonian extinction events were caused by an asteroid impact. However, while there were Late Devonian collision events (see the Alamo bolide impact), little evidence supports the existence of a large enough Devonian crater.