Life on Earth During the Miocene Epoch

Restoration of Miocene fauna of North America, on a mural made for the US government-owned Smithsonian Museum.
Restoration of Miocene fauna of North America, on a mural made for the US government-owned Smithsonian Museum. | Source

During cycles long anterior to the creation of the human race, and while the surface of the globe was passing from one condition to another, whole races of animals–each group adapted to the physical conditions in which they lived–were successively created and exterminated.
Sir Roderick Impey Murchison

The Miocene Epoch

The word miocene is derived from the Greek words meion (meaning “less”) and kainos (meaning “recent or new”).This epoch was named by geologist Sir Charles Lyell. The name refers to the fact that it has 18% fewer modern sea invertebrates than the Pliocene.The Miocene Epoch was the earliest division of the Neogene Period which occurred million years to 2.6 million years ago. Extending from 23 million to 5.3 million years ago, the Miocene is often divided into:

  • Early Miocene (23 - 16 mya)
  • Middle Miocene (16 - 11.6 mya)
  • Late Miocene (11.6 - 5.3 mya)

In geological terms, the Miocene is often divided into six ages corresponding to the various rock stages discovered. These ages from oldest to youngest are:

  • Aquitanian
  • Burdigalian
  • Langhian,
  • Serravallian
  • Tortonian
  • Messinian

North and South America are rich in Miocene deposits. Rich deposits also occur in southern Europe, India, Mongolia, East Africa and Pakistan. The fossil record in Miocene deposits is rich in both terrestrial and marine organisms. In particular, the record of terrestrial evolution, particularly of mammals, is extensive.

The Miocene Epoch is is notable for its prehistoric life which included representatives of most of today's flora and fauna. During the Miocene, the earth was experiencing a continuation of the trend of long term cooling begun in the Eocene epoch. However, its climate was warmer than the Oligocene which preceeded it as well as the following Pliocene. Because the climate first wamed and then cooled during the Miocene period, it is significant that two major ecosystems first appeared:

  • kelp forests of the marine ecosystems
  • grasslands of the terrestrial ecosystems

Geologic time scale covering the Precambrian and Phanerozoic eons with detail down to the epoch.
Geologic time scale covering the Precambrian and Phanerozoic eons with detail down to the epoch. | Source

Six Ages Of The Miocene Epoch

Period
Epoch
Age
Time Period (millions of years)
Neogene
Miocene
Messinian
5.332–7.246
 
 
Tortonian
7.246–11.608
 
 
Serravallian
11.608–13.65
 
(Middle Miocene Extinction event during this stage)
Langhian
13.65–15.97
 
 
Burdigalian
15.97–20.43
Subdivision of the Neogene Period according to the IUGS, as of July 2009

Climate Change in the Miocene Epoch

A number of factors contributed to climate change during this Epoch.

  • Mountain formations in the Americas and Asia altered both air circulation and weather patterns leading to drier conditions.
  • Because Antartica separated from South America during the Oligocene, warm, tropical waters mixed little with the cool, polar waters. Antartica froze triggering another global climate cooling.
  • Seals and whales evolved in the abundance of organisms which appeared due to the stirring of nutrient rich waters.
  • During this period, the oceans receded and inland waters evaporated forming land bridges between continents which allowed waves of animal migration.
  • Grasslands dominated and those families adaptive to the harsher conditions survived and evolved such as horses, deer and antelope while those not suited to the new conditions verged on extinction.

The Miocene went through a series of changes resulting in rapid evolution of new flora and fauna and the extinction of many others.

1. 24 million years ago: In the short term, warming and drying occurred.

  • Kelp forests and grasslands eventually became the dominant vegetation.

2. 20 million years ago: A period of mountain building occurred.

  • The Cascade Mountains of North America, the Andes in South America and the Himalayas of Asia were formed during the Miocene.
  • Wind and weather patterns were disrupted changing rainfall patterns.
  • Carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere due to the erosion of the newly exposed rock which may have esacerbated the global cooling.
  • Evolving marine life was supported by communities of large, brown algae that developed into kelp forests.
  • These kelp forests support a number of evolving animal groups including sea otters, fish, and invertebrates.
  • Inland seas dry out because of shifting continents, changing climate, and the formation of the polar ice cap.
  • Sea levels dropped and also inland waters shrank.
  • Land bridges formed, most importantly between Africa and Eurasia, as well as Eurasia and North America.


Mountain Ranges Formed During The Miocene Epoch

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A markerCascade Mountains -
Cascade Range
[get directions]

B markerThe Andes Mountains -
Cordillera de los Andes
[get directions]

C markerHimalayas -
Himalaya
[get directions]

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Kelp ForestKiowa National Grasslands
Kelp Forest
Kelp Forest | Source
Kiowa National Grasslands
Kiowa National Grasslands | Source

Life in the Miocene Epoch

During the Miocene, the open vegetation systems including deserts, tundra and grasslands were expanding while forests were becoming smaller.

  • Studies of spore and pollen samples from this epoch suggest that most modern seed plant families existed by the end of the Miocene.
  • A warming trend during the middle Miocene followed by a cooling period was likely responsible for the loss of northern tropical ecosystems, the expansion of coniferous forests in the north and the appearance of definite seasons.
  • These changes triggered the evolution and diversification of modern grasses and sedges.

Changes in plant systems triggered morphological changes in animals; therefore, in temperate ecosystems, mammals and birds in particular evolved new forms including:

  • fast-running herbivores
  • large predatory mamals and birds
  • small quick birds
  • rodents

Similar changes occurred in marine ecosystems as kelp forests appeared for the first time in the Miocene.

  • Sea otters and other marine organisms adapted to this unique ecosystem evolved in tandem.
  • Other marine dwellers not suited to these kelp forests went extinct such as the mammal Desmostylia.

Fauna Of The Miocene Epoch

Click thumbnail to view full-size
 Reconstructions of the prehistoric seahorses Hippocampus sarmaticus (largest), and H. slovenicus (red).A Miocene crab Tumidocarcinus giganteus in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indiana.Thylacosmilus was a genus of sabre-toothed metatherian predators that first appeared during the Miocene.Protypotherium is an extinct genus of mammal native to South America during the Miocene epoch.Fossilised Palaeobatrachus gigas.Comparison of Palaeotragus with two species of Climacoceras (in the foreground).: Man sitting on Carcharodon megalodon jaws.Hipparion gracile skeleton, a horse of the Miocene.
 Reconstructions of the prehistoric seahorses Hippocampus sarmaticus (largest), and H. slovenicus (red).
Reconstructions of the prehistoric seahorses Hippocampus sarmaticus (largest), and H. slovenicus (red). | Source
A Miocene crab Tumidocarcinus giganteus in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indiana.
A Miocene crab Tumidocarcinus giganteus in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indiana. | Source
Thylacosmilus was a genus of sabre-toothed metatherian predators that first appeared during the Miocene.
Thylacosmilus was a genus of sabre-toothed metatherian predators that first appeared during the Miocene. | Source
Protypotherium is an extinct genus of mammal native to South America during the Miocene epoch.
Protypotherium is an extinct genus of mammal native to South America during the Miocene epoch. | Source
Fossilised Palaeobatrachus gigas.
Fossilised Palaeobatrachus gigas. | Source
Source
Comparison of Palaeotragus with two species of Climacoceras (in the foreground).
Comparison of Palaeotragus with two species of Climacoceras (in the foreground). | Source
: Man sitting on Carcharodon megalodon jaws.
: Man sitting on Carcharodon megalodon jaws. | Source
Hipparion gracile skeleton, a horse of the Miocene.
Hipparion gracile skeleton, a horse of the Miocene. | Source

Land Bridges And The Diversification Of Life In The Miocene Epoch

Diversification of life during the Miocene was accelerated due to the appearance of land bridges. Connection of continents once separated by water allowed animals to migrate to new habitats, thus extending their geographic ranges.

  • The primary paths of migration were between Africa, North America, and Eurasia.
  • The Tethys Ocean, now receded, created a land bridge between Africa and Eurasia.
  • Elephants and apes ventured over this land bridge extending their range into Eurasia.
  • Rabbits, pigs, saber-toothed cats, and modern rhinos crossed the same bridge from Eurasia into Africa.
  • Across the Bering land bridge which connected Siberia and Alaska, rhinos and elephants extended their range even further along while horses made their way from North America into Eurasia.
  • At the end of the Miocene, only a narrow corridor of water separated North from South America allowing some animals to cross such as Ground Sloths which had evolved in the isolation in South America.
  • Racoons crossed the same narrow waterway, making their way from North to South America.
  • The island continent, Australia, gains immigrant species from southeast Asia, including rodents which may have travelled along the Malaysian island chain in order to expand their range.
  • It does not appear that the migration of these invading species forced native species to extinction.
  • Rather, it appears that changing climate and vegetation were the cause of most Miocene extinctions.

Notable Life During the Miocene Epoch

 
Class
Groups Present
Notable Species
Terrestrial Life
Mammals
prehistoric horses of North America
Hypohippus, Merychippus, Hipparion
 
 
prehistoric dogs
Tomarctus
 
 
camels and deer
 
 
 
golden age of apes and hominids of Africa and Eurasia
Gigantopithecus, Dryopithecus, Sivapithecus
 
Birds
South American
enormous Argentavis (200 pds)
 
 
North American and Eurasian
enormous Osteodontornis (50 pds)
 
 
worldwide
Pelagornis (75 pds)
 
 
most other bird families present
 
 
Reptiles
giagantic crocodiles
South American Purussaurus, Australian Quinkana, Indian Rhamphosuchus
 
 
snakes, turtles, lizards
 
Marine Life
Mammals
seals, walruses
Potamotherium, Enaliarctos
 
 
whales
Leviathan, Cetotherium
 
 
dolphin ancestor
Eurhinodelphis
 
Fish
sharks
Megalodon
 
Actinopterygii
sea horses
 
 
Malacostraca
crabs
Tumidocarcinus giganteus

Sites of Significant Miocene Fossils

show route and directions
A markerSan Joaquin, California -
San Joaquin, CA 93660, USA
[get directions]

San Joaquin California is locatied within the Monterey Formation, a vast area of marine deposits rich in fossils from the Miocene Epoch.

B markerVillavieja Columbia -
Villavieja, Huila, Colombia
[get directions]

The Villavieja Formation located around this area is also rich in Miocene fossils.

C markerAlcoota Fossil Beds -
Alcoota Station Airport, Anmatjere NT 0872, Australia
[get directions]

The Alcoota Fossil Beds in Australia are notable for the occurrence of well-preserved, rare, Miocene vertebrate fossils

Resources Used

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Miocene Epoch. November 2011.

Editors of PBS. Evolution: A Journey into Where We're From and Where We are Going. Change: Deep Time - The Cenozoic Era: (248 mya - present) - Miocene Epoch

Polly, David and Dave Smith et al. University of California Museum of Paleontology. The Miocene Epoch. June 2010.

Strauss, Bob. About.com Dinosaurs. The Miocene Epoch (23-5 Million Years Ago). 2012.

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Comments 9 comments

JKenny profile image

JKenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

Wow, what an epic hub. I'm actually in the middle of writing a series of hubs detailing the history of life on Earth. At the moment I'm working on the last hub covering the Cenozoic era.

Its amazing just how much of prehistory gets neglected, apart from the dinosaurs of course. But hopefully this hub will the Miocene some much needed exposure. Will you be doing any hubs covering any other geological periods? I'd love to see them. Voted up and shared.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

Good job, Teresa. Voted up.

There's been speculation that the connection of the North and South American continents, which disrupted a major ocean current at the end of the Miocene, was the main cause of the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps. What do you think?


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

JKenny, I had to step back for awhile and absorb your comment. I am extremely honoured at your review of my hub. I have always loved prehistory. It is second only to science as my favourite fields of study. I notice that you too share my passion for this subject. I have created series in the past and I had already considered a second installment. Perhaps I will begin at the beginning so to speak of the geological timetable. Thank you so much reading and commenting. I do greatly appreciate the support!


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Larry, I believe any changes in the techtonic alignment of the earth's plates will result in climate change. The land bridge between the America's would certainly have an impact. It is a plausible theory and I think one I will have to investigate further perhaps adding to this hub. Thank you for your interest and giving me food for thought!


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Wonderful historical info involving plants and animals, which of course, transcends each important era.


Doc Sonic profile image

Doc Sonic 4 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Fascinating stuff. You've really made a lot of information accessible and easy to understand. If you did a series on the entire timeline, that would keep you busy for quite a while! I'd read 'em all, too.


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Thanks so much Doc. It was a time consuming project but so interesting to research. I have been thinking of a series. Thanks for the support!


ParadigmEnacted profile image

ParadigmEnacted 3 years ago

Incredible knowledge base and very helpful reference. Thank you.


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Thanks ParadigmEnacted. So glad you enjoyed my research.

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