Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

the conditions of plant life. Many insects, &c., have been obtained from the coalfields of Saarbrück and Commentry, and from the hollow trunks of fossil trees in Nova Scotia. Certain British coalfields have yielded good specimens: Archaeoptilus, from the Derbyshire coalfield, had a spread of wing extending to more than 14 in.; some specimens (Brodia) still exhibit traces of brilliant wing colours. In the Nova Scotian tree trunks land snails (Archaeozonites, Dendropupa) have been found.

In the later Carboniferous rocks the earliest amphibians make their appearance in considerable numbers; they were all Stegocephalians (Labyrinthodonts) with long bodies, a head covered with bony plates and weak or undeveloped limbs. The largest were about 7 or 8 ft. long, the smallest only a few inches. Some were probably fluviatile in habit (Loxomma, Anthracosaurus, Ophiderpeton); others may have been terrestrial (Dendrerpeton, Hylerpeton). Certain footprints in the coal measures of Kansas have been supposed to belong to lacertilian or dinosaurian forms.

The Physical Conditions during the Period.—In western Europe the advent of the Carboniferous period was accompanied by the production of a series of synclines which permitted the formation of organic limestones, free from the sediments which generally characterized the concluding phases of the preceding Devonian deposition. The old land area still existed to the north, but doubtless much reduced in height; against this land, detrital deposits still continued to be formed, as in Scotland; while over central Ireland and central and northern England the clearer waters of the sea furnished a suitable home for countless corals, brachiopods and foraminifera and great beds of sea lilies; sponges flourished in many parts of the sea, and their remains contributed largely to the formation of the beds of chert. This clearer water extended from Ireland across north-central England and through South Wales and Somerset into Belgium and Westphalia; but a narrow ridge of elevated older rocks ran across the centre of England towards Belgium at this time.

Traced eastward into north Germany, Thuringia and Silesia, the limestones pass into the detrital culm formations, which owe their existence to a southern uplifted massif, the complement of the synclines already mentioned. Sediments approaching to the culm type, with similar flora and fauna, were deposited in synclinal hollows in parts of France and Spain.

Thus western Europe in early Carboniferous time was occupied by a series of constricted, gulf-like seas; and on account of the steady progress of intermittent warping movements of the crust, we find that the areas of clearer water, in which the limestone-building organisms could exist, were repeatedly able to spread, thus forming those thin limestones found interbedded with shale and sandstone which occur typically in the Yoredale district of Yorkshire and in the region to the north, and also in the culm deposits of central Europe. The spread of these limestones was repeatedly checked by the steady influx of detritus from the land during the pauses in movements of depression. Looking eastward, towards central and northern Russia, we find a wider and much more open sea; but the continental type of deposit prevailed in the northern portion, and here, as in Scotland, we find coal-beds amongst the sediments (Moscow basin). Farther south in the Donetz basin the coals only appear at the close of the Lower Carboniferous.

In North America, the crustal movements at the beginning of the period are less evident than in Europe, but a marked parallelism exists; for in the east, in the Appalachian tract, we find detrital sediments prevailing, while the open sea, with great deposits of limestone, lay out towards the west in the direction of that similar open sea which lay towards the east of Europe and extended through Asia.

The close of the early Carboniferous period was marked by an augmentation of the orogenic movements. The gentler synclines and anticlines of the earlier part of the period became accentuated, giving rise to pronounced mountain ridges, right across Europe.

This movement commenced in the central and western part of the continent and continued throughout the whole Carboniferous period. The mountains then formed have been called the “Palaeozoic Alps” by E. Kayser, the “Hercynian Mountains” by M. Bertrand. The most western range extended from Ireland through Wales and the south of England to the central plateau of France; this was the “Armorican range” of E. Suess. The eastern part of the chain passed from South France through the Vosges, the Black Forest, Thuringia, Harz, the Fichtelgebirge, Bohemia, the Sudetes, and possibly farther east; this constitutes the “Varischen Alps” of Suess.

The sea had gained somewhat at the beginning of the Carboniferous period in western Europe, but the effect of these movements, combined with the rapid formation of detrital deposits from the rising land areas, was to drive the sea steadily from the north towards the south, until the open sea (with limestones) was relegated to what is now the Mediterranean and to Russia and thence eastward. Similar events were meanwhile happening in North America, for the seas were steadily filled with sediments which drove them from the north-east towards the south-west, and doubtless those movements which at the close of this period uplifted the Appalachian mountains were already operative in the same direction.

The folding of the Ural mountains began in the earlier part of this period and was continued, after its close, into the Permian; and there are traces of uplifts in central Asia and Armenia.

None of these movements appears to have affected the southern hemisphere.

The net result of the erogenic movements was, that at the close of the period there existed a great northern continental mass, embracing Europe, North Asia and North America; and a great southern continental mass, including South America, Africa, Australia and India. Between these land masses lay a great Mediterranean sea—the “Tethys” of Suess.

The conditions under which the beds of coal were formed will be found described under that head; it will be sufficient to notice here that some coal seams were undoubtedly formed by jungle or swamp-like growths on the site of the deposit, and it is equally true that others were formed by the transport and deposition of vegetable detritus. The main point to observe in this connexion is that large tracts of land in many parts of the world were at a critical level as regards the sea, a condition highly favourable to frequent extensive incursions of marine waters over the low-lying areas in a period of extreme crustal instability.

Vulcanicity.—In intimate relationship with the mountain-building orogenic crustal movements was the prevalence of volcanic activity during the earlier part of this period. In the Lower Carboniferous rocks of Scotland intercalated volcanic rocks are strikingly abundant, and now form an important feature in the geology of the southern portion of that country. Of these rocks Sir Archibald Geikie says: “Two great phases or types of volcanic action during Carboniferous time may be recognized—(1) Plateaus, where the volcanic materials discharged copiously from many scattered openings now form broad tablelands or ranges of hills, sometimes many hundreds of square miles in extent and 1500 ft. or more in thickness; (2) Puys, where the ejections were often confined to the discharge of a small amount of fragmentary materials from a single independent vent.” The plateau type was most extensively developed during the formation of the Calciferous Sandstone; the puy type was of somewhat later date. Basic lavas, with andesites, trachytes, tuffs and agglomerates are the most common Scottish rocks of this period. Similar eruptions, but on a much smaller scale, took place in other parts of Great Britain.

Granites, porphyries and porphyrites belonging to this period occur in the Saxon Erzgebirge, the Harz, Thüringerwald, Vosges, Brittany, Cornwall and Christiania. Porphyrites and tuffs are known in the French Carboniferous. In China, at the close of the period, there were enormous eruptions of melaphyre, porphyrite and quartz-porphyry. In North America, the principal region of volcanic activity lay in the west; great thicknesses of igneous rocks occur in the Lower Carboniferous rocks of British Columbia, and from the middle of the period until near its close volcanoes were active from Alaska to California. Igneous rocks of this period are found also in Australasia.

Climate.—That the vegetation during this period was unusually exuberant there can be no doubt, and that a general uniformity of climatic conditions prevailed is shown not only by the wide distribution of coal measures, but by the uniformity of plant types over the whole earth. It is well, however, to guard against an over-estimation of this exuberance; it must be borne in mind that the physiographic conditions were peculiarly favourable to the preservation of plant remains, conditions that do not appear to have obtained so completely in any other period. The climate, we may assume from the distribution of land and water, was generally moist, and it was probably mild if not warm; conditions favourable to the growth of certain types of plants. But there is no good evidence for an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—an assumption founded on the luxuriance of the vegetation, coupled with the fact that vulcanicity was active and wide-ranging. Carbon dioxide may have been present in the air in greater abundance in earlier periods than it is at present, but there is no reason to suppose that the percentage was appreciably higher in the Carboniferous period than it is now.

The occurrence of red deposits in western Australia, Scotland, the Ural mountains, in Michigan, Montana and Nova Scotia, &c., associated in some instances with the formation of gypsum and salt, clearly points to the existence of areas of excessive evaporation, such as are found in land-locked waters in regions where something like desert conditions prevail. The xerophytic structures found in some of the plants might seem to corroborate this view; but similar structures are assumed by many plants when dwelling in brackish marshes and morasses.

The abundance of corals in some of the Carboniferous seas and possibly also the large size of some of the Productids and foraminifera may be taken as evidence of warm or temperate waters.

In spite of the bulk of the evidence being in favour of geniality of climate, it is necessary to observe that certain deposits have been recognized as glacial; in the culm of the Frankenwald, in the coal basins of central France, and in central England, certain conglomeratic beds have been assigned, somewhat doubtfully, to this origin. They have also been regarded as the result of torrential action. Glacial deposits certainly do exist in the Permo-carboniferous formations, which are described under that head, but in the true Carboniferous system glaciation may be taken as not proven. The foreign boulders of granite, gneiss, &c., found in the coal-measures of some districts, are quite as likely to have been dropped by rafts of vegetation as to have been carried by floating icebergs.