Last updated on 30 June 2017
Devonian Period
419.2–358.9 million years ago
Mean atmospheric O
content over period duration
c. 15 vol %[1][2]
(75 % of modern level)
Mean atmospheric CO
content over period duration
c. 2200 ppm[3]
(8 times pre-industrial level)
Mean surface temperature over period duration c. 20 °C[4]
(6 °C above modern level)
Sea level (above present day) Relatively steady around 189m, gradually falling to 120m through period[5]
Events of the Devonian Period
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-420 —
-415 —
-410 —
-405 —
-400 —
-395 —
-390 —
-385 —
-380 —
-375 —
-370 —
-365 —
-360 —
-355 —
shrubs & trees
S. America
glaciation begins
D e v o n i a n
Key events of the Devonian Period.
Axis scale: millions of years ago.

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.[9] 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 placodermi 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.[10] 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[11] severely affected marine life, killing off all placodermi, and all trilobites, save for a few species of the order Proetida.

The palaeogeography was dominated by the supercontinent of Gondwana to the south, the continent of Siberia to the north, and the early formation of the small continent of Euramerica in between.


Lummaton Quarry 1.JPG
The rocks of Lummaton Quarry in Torquay in Devon played an early role in defining the Devonian 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 is a classic case of how the foundations of our present-day geological knowledge and classification of the rock record and geological timescale was socially as well as scientifically constructed. After 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.[12][13]

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).[9]

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",[14] 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.[15]

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.

Early Devonian

The Early Devonian lasted from 419.2 ± 2.8 to 393.3 ± 2.5 and began with the Lochkovian stage, which lasted until the Pragian. It spanned from 410.8 ± 2.8 to 407.6 ± 2.5, and was followed by the Emsian, which lasted until the Middle Devonian began, 393.3± 2.7 million years ago.

Middle Devonian

The Middle Devonian comprised two subdivisions: first the Eifelian, which then gave way to the Givetian 387.7± 2.7 million years ago. 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.

Late Devonian

Finally, the Late Devonian started with the Frasnian, 382.7 ± 2.8 to 372.2 ± 2.5, 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, 358.9± 2.5 million years ago.


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.[16] Reconstruction of tropical sea surface temperature from conodont apatite implies an average value of 30 °C (86 °F) in the Early Devonian.[16] 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).[16] 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.[16] 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.


380 Ma plate tectonic reconstruction.png
The Paleo-Tethys Ocean opened during the Devonian

The Devonian period was a time of great tectonic activity, as Euramerica and Gondwana drew closer together.

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.[17]

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).


Marine biota

Fish evolution.png
Spindle diagram for the evolution of fish and other vertebrate classes. The diagram is based on Michael Benton, 2005.[18]

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, have 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.[19]


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.

Dunkleosteus BW.jpg

Dunkleosteus, one of the largest armoured fish ever to roam the planet, lived during the late Devonian

Devonianfishes ntm 1905 smit 1929.gif

Early shark Cladoselache, several lobe-finned fishes, including Eusthenopteron that was an early marine tetrapod, and the placoderm Bothriolepis in a painting from 1905


Enrolled phacopid trilobite from the Devonian of Ohio


The common tabulate coral Aulopora from the Middle Devonian of Ohio – view of colony encrusting a brachiopod valve

Tropidoleptus carinatus.jpg

Tropidoleptus carinatus, an orthid brachiopod from the Middle Devonian of New York.

Pleurodictyum americanum Kashong.jpg

Pleurodictyum americanum, Kashong Shale, Middle Devonian of New York


SEM image of a hederelloid from the Devonian of Michigan (largest tube diameter is 0.75 mm)


Devonian spiriferid brachiopod from Ohio which served as a host substrate for a colony of hederelloids

Terrestrial biota

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[20] and myriapods (although arthropods appeared on land much earlier than in the Early Devonian[21] 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. The first tetrapods, evolved from lobe-finned fish, appeared in the coastal water no later than middle Devonian, and gave rise to the first Amphibians.[22]

The greening of land

The Devonian period marks the beginning of extensive land colonization by plants. With large land-dwelling herbivores not yet present, large forests grew and shaped the landscape.

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.[23] 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.[24] By far the largest land organism during this period was the enigmatic Prototaxites, which was possibly the fruiting body of an enormous fungus,[25] rolled liverwort mat,[26] or another organism of uncertain affinities[27] 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.[28] In the Late Devonian, the tree-like ancestral Progymnosperm Archaeopteris which had conifer-like true wood and fern-like foliage and the cladoxylopsids grew.[29] (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.

Animals and the first soils

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.[30]

Late Devonian extinction

Extinction Intensity.svg
The Late Devonian is characterised by three episodes of extinction ("Late D")

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.

The reasons for the Late Devonian extinctions are still unknown, and all explanations remain speculative.[31] 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.

See also


  1. ^ Image:Sauerstoffgehalt-1000mj.svg
  2. ^ File:OxygenLevel-1000ma.svg
  3. ^ Image:Phanerozoic Carbon Dioxide.png
  4. ^ Image:All palaeotemps.png
  5. ^ Haq, B. U.; Schutter, SR (2008). "A Chronology of Paleozoic Sea-Level Changes". Science. 322 (5898): 64–68. Bibcode:2008Sci...322...64H. PMID 18832639. doi:10.1126/science.1161648.
  6. ^ Parry, S. F.; Noble, S. R.; Crowley, Q. G.; Wellman, C. H. (2011). "A high-precision U–Pb age constraint on the Rhynie Chert Konservat-Lagerstätte: time scale and other implications". Journal of the Geological Society. London: Geological Society. 168 (4): 863–872. doi:10.1144/0016-76492010-043.
  7. ^ Kaufmann, B.; Trapp, E.; Mezger, K. (2004). "The numerical age of the Upper Frasnian (Upper Devonian) Kellwasser horizons: A new U-Pb zircon date from Steinbruch Schmidt(Kellerwald, Germany)". The Journal of Geology. 112 (4): 495–501. Bibcode:2004JG....112..495K. doi:10.1086/421077.
  8. ^ Algeo, T. J. (1998). "Terrestrial-marine teleconnections in the Devonian: links between the evolution of land plants, weathering processes, and marine anoxic events". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 353 (1365): 113–130. doi:10.1098/rstb.1998.0195.
  9. ^ a b Gradstein, Felix M.; Ogg, J. G.; Smith, A. G. (2004). A Geologic Time Scale 2004. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521786738.
  10. ^ Amos, Jonathan. "Fossil tracks record 'oldest land-walkers'". BBC News. Retrieved 24 December 2016.
  11. ^ Newitz, Annalee. "How Do You Have a Mass Extinction Without an Increase in Extinctions?". The Atlantic.
  12. ^ Rudwick M.S.J. 1985 The great Devonian controversy: the shaping of scientific knowledge among gentlemanly specialists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  13. ^ Note:
    • Sedgwick and Murchison coined the term "Devonian system" in: Adam Sedgwick and Roderick Impey Murchison (1840) "On the physical structure of Devonshire, and on the subdivisions and geological relations of its older stratified deposits, etc.," Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 2nd series, 5 (part II) : 633-687 (Part I) and 688-705 (Part II). From p. 701: "We propose therefore, for the future, to designate these groups collectively by the name Devonian system, … ."
    • Sedgwick and Murchison acknowledged William Lonsdale's role in proposing, on the basis of fossil evidence, the existence of a Devonian stratum between those of the Silurian and Carboniferous periods. From (Sedgwick and Murchison, 1840), p. 690: "Again, Mr. Lonsdale, after an extensive examination of the fossils of South Devon, had pronounced them, more than a year since, to form a group intermediate between those of the Carboniferous and Silurian systems, … ."
    • William Lonsdale stated that in December 1837 he had suggested the existence of a stratum between the Silurian and Carboniferous ones. See: William Lonsdale (1840) "Notes on the age of limestones from south Devonshire," Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 2nd series, 5 (part II) : 721-738 ; see especially pp. 724 and 727. From p. 724: " … Mr. Austen's communication [was] read December 1837, … . It was immediately after the reading of that paper … that I formed the opinion relative to the limestones of Devonshire being of the age of the old red sandstone; and which I afterwards suggested first to Mr. Murchison and then to Prof. Sedgwick, … ."
  14. ^ Age of Fishes Museum
  15. ^ Barclay, W.J. 1989. Geology of the South Wales Coalfield Pt II, the country around Abergavenny, 3rd edn. Memoir of the British Geological Survey Sheet 232 (Eng & Wales) pp18-19
  16. ^ a b c d Joachimski, M. M.; Breisig, S.; Buggisch, W. F.; Talent, J. A.; Mawson, R.; Gereke, M.; Morrow, J. R.; Day, J.; Weddige, K. (2009). "Devonian climate and reef evolution: Insights from oxygen isotopes in apatite". Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 284 (3–4): 599–596. Bibcode:2009E&PSL.284..599J. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2009.05.028. - Graph of palaeotemperature from Conodont apatite
  17. ^ Devonian Paleogeography
  18. ^ Benton, M. J. (2005) Vertebrate Palaeontology John Wiley, 3rd edition, page 14. ISBN 9781405144490.
  19. ^ Palaeos Paleozoic: Devonian: The Devonian Period - 2
  20. ^ Garwood, Russell J.; Dunlop, Jason (July 2014). "The walking dead: Blender as a tool for paleontologists with a case study on extinct arachnids". Journal of Paleontology. Paleontological Society. 88 (4): 735–746. ISSN 0022-3360. doi:10.1666/13-088. Retrieved 2015-07-21.
  21. ^ Garwood, Russell J.; Edgecombe, Gregory D. (September 2011). "Early Terrestrial Animals, Evolution, and Uncertainty". Evolution: Education and Outreach. New York: Springer Science+Business Media. 4 (3): 489–501. ISSN 1936-6426. doi:10.1007/s12052-011-0357-y. Retrieved 2015-07-21.
  22. ^ Niedźwiedzki (2010). "Tetrapod trackways from the early Middle Devonian period of Poland". Nature. 463 (7277): 43–48. Bibcode:2010Natur.463...43N. PMID 20054388. doi:10.1038/nature08623.
  23. ^ Zhang, Ying-ying; Xue, Jin-Zhuang; Liu, Le; Wang, De-ming (2016). "Periodicity of reproductive growth in lycopsids: An example from the Upper Devonian of Zhejiang Province, China". Paleoworld. 25 (1): 12–20. doi:10.1016/j.palwor.2015.07.002.
  24. ^ Gonez, Paul; Gerrienne, Philippe (2010). "A new definition and a lectotypification of the genus Cooksonia Lang 1937". International Journal of Plant Sciences. 171 (2): 199–215. doi:10.1086/648988.
  25. ^ Hueber, Francis M. (2001). "Rotted wood-alga fungus: The history and life of Prototaxites Dawson 1859". Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology. 116: 123–159. doi:10.1016/s0034-6667(01)00058-6.
  26. ^ Graham, Linda E.; Cook, Martha E; Hanson, David T.; Pigg, Kathleen B.; Graham, James M. (2010). "Rolled liverwort mats explain major Prototaxites features: Response to commentaries". American Journal of Botany. 97 (7): 1079–1086. PMID 21616860. doi:10.3732/ajb.1000172.
  27. ^ Taylor, Thomas N.; Taylor, Edith L.; Decombeix, Anne-Laure; Schwendemann, Andrew; Serbet, Rudolph; Escapa, Ignacio; Krings, Michael (2010). "The enigmatic Devonian fossil Prototaxites is not a rolled-up liverwort mat: Comment on the paper by Graham et al.(AJB 97: 268–275)". American Journal of Botany. 97 (7): 1074–1078. PMID 21616859. doi:10.3732/ajb.1000047.
  28. ^ Smith, Lewis (April 19, 2007). "Fossil from a forest that gave Earth its breath of fresh air". The Times. London. Retrieved May 1, 2010.
  29. ^ C.Michael Hogan. 2010. Fern. Encyclopedia of Earth. eds. Saikat Basu and C.Cleveland. National Council for Science and the Environment. Washington DC.
  30. ^ Gess, R.W. (2013). "The earliest record of terrestrial animals in Gondwana: A scorpion from the Famennian (Late Devonian) Witpoort Formation of South Africa". African Invertebrates. 54 (2): 373–379. doi:10.5733/afin.054.0206.
  31. ^ Citation needed

External links

Preceded by Proterozoic Eon Phanerozoic Eon
Paleozoic Era Mesozoic Era Cenozoic Era
Cambrian Ordovician Silurian Devonian Carboniferous Permian Triassic Jurassic Cretaceous Paleogene Neogene 4ry

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