The Lower Cretaceous is characterized by a revolution in the plant life, with the sudden appearance of flowering plants (angiosperms) such as the ancestors of the beech, fig, magnolia, and sassafras. By the end of the Cretaceous such plants became dominant. Willow, elm, grape, laurel, birch, oak, and maple also made their appearance, along with grass and the sequoias of California. Closely associated with the angiosperms were insects, including a form of the dragonfly, and most were similar to today's insects. This prepared the way for the increase in mammals in the late Cenozoic. The marine invertebrates of the Cretaceous included nautiluses, barnacles, lobsters, crabs, sea urchins, ammonites, and foraminifers. Reptiles reached their zenith, including the dinosaurs Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus), and Iguanodon, and ranged from herbivores to carnivores. Flying reptiles such as the pterosaurs were highly developed, while in the sea there were ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs. Other reptiles living in this period include crocodiles and giant turtles; snakes and lizards made their first appearance at this time. True mammals, which had already appeared in the Triassic period, were rare, as the Cretaceous reptiles dominated.
The climate of the Cretaceous was apparently fairly mild and uniform, but it is possible that toward the end of the period some variant zones of climate had appeared, making the overall climate cooler. Such changes, along with changes in both the earth's surface and its flora and fauna, brought the Mesozoic to a close.
By the end of the Cretaceous, about 75% of all species, including marine, freshwater, and terrestrial organisms, became extinct. The rather abrupt disappearance of Cretaceous life remains a mystery; similar mass extinctions have occurred at other periods in the earth's history. Theories for the extinctions have included one or a mixture of the following: drastic cooling of the globe, retreat of the seas, breakup of the continents (see continental drift), biological disease, reversals of the earth's magnetic field, or a change in atmospheric carbon dioxide and oxygen. However, the most widely accepted theory was introduced in 1980 by Luis and Walter Alvarez and colleagues at the Univ. of California. Alvarez proposed that the earth was struck by an asteroid or comet about 6 mi (10 km) in diameter around 65 million years ago. Such an impact (or collection of impacts) would spread dust into the atmosphere, suppressing photosynthesis and changing the food chain. Evidence for an impact includes an anomalous iridium layer, typical of meteorites, and some probable impact craters dated to the late Cretaceous. Other scientists have proposed that the cause of the final Cretaceous extinction was the huge volcanic eruptions that created the lava flows of the Deccan Traps in what is now India. One model has put these two theories together, hypothesizing that shock waves from the impact of a large asteroid moved through the earth, shaking the earth's crust and triggering or intensifying the volcanic events. Another suggests that the lava flows set off a chain of events that killed off much marine life a couple hundred thousand years before the impact extinguished the dinosaurs.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.