Timeline of the evolutionary history of life

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The timeline of the evolutionary history of life represents the current scientific theory outlining the major events during the development of life on planet Earth. In biology, evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organization, from kingdoms to species, and individual organisms and molecules, such as DNA and proteins. The similarities between all present day organisms indicate the presence of a common ancestor from which all known species, living and extinct, have diverged through the process of evolution. More than 99 percent of all species, amounting to over five billion species,[1] that ever lived on Earth are estimated to be extinct.[2][3] Estimates on the number of Earth's current species range from 10 million to 14 million,[4] of which about 1.2 million have been documented and over 86 percent have not yet been described.[5] However, a May 2016 scientific report estimates that 1 trillion species are currently on Earth, with only one-thousandth of one percent described.[6]

While the dates given in this article are estimates based on scientific evidence, there has been controversy between more traditional views of increased biodiversity through a cone of diversity with the passing of time and the view that the basic pattern on Earth has been one of annihilation and diversification and that in certain past times, such as the Cambrian explosion, there was great diversity.[7][8]


Visual representation of the history of life on Earth as a spiral

Species go extinct constantly as environments change, as organisms compete for environmental niches, and as genetic mutation leads to the rise of new species from older ones. Occasionally, biodiversity on Earth undergoes a rapid reduction in the form of a mass extinction in which the extinction rate is much higher than usual.[9] A large extinction-event often represents an accumulation of smaller extinction- events that take place in a relatively brief period of time.[10]

The first known mass extinction in earth's history was the Great Oxygenation Event 2.4 billion years ago, which led to the loss of most of the planet's obligate anaerobes. Researchers have identified five major extinction events in earth's history since:[11]

(Dates and percentages represent estimates.)

Smaller extinction-events have occurred in the periods between these larger catastrophes, with some standing at the delineation points of the periods and epochs recognized by scientists in geologic time. The Holocene extinction event is currently under way.[12]

Factors in mass extinctions include continental drift, changes in atmospheric and marine chemistry, volcanism and other aspects of mountain formation, changes in glaciation, changes in sea level, and impact events.[10]

Detailed timeline[edit]

In this timeline, Ma (for megaannum) means "million years ago," ka (for kiloannum) means "thousand years ago," and ya means "years ago."

Hadean Eon[edit]

4000 Ma and earlier.

Date Event
4600 Ma The planet Earth forms from the accretion disc revolving around the young Sun, with organic compounds (complex organic molecules) necessary for life having perhaps formed in the protoplanetary disk of cosmic dust grains surrounding it before the formation of the Earth itself.[13]
4500 Ma According to the giant impact hypothesis, the Moon originated when the planet Earth and the hypothesized planet Theia collided, sending a very large number of moonlets into orbit around the young Earth which eventually coalesced to form the Moon.[14] The gravitational pull of the new Moon stabilised the Earth's fluctuating axis of rotation and set up the conditions in which abiogenesis could occur.[15]
4400 Ma First appearance of liquid water on Earth.
4374 Ma The age of the oldest discovered zircon crystals.
4280 Ma Earliest possible appearance of life on Earth.[16][17][18][19]

Archean Eon[edit]

Fragment of the Acasta Gneiss exhibited at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna
The cyanobacterial-algal mat, salty lake on the White Sea seaside
Halobacterium sp. strain NRC-1

4000 Ma – 2500 Ma

Date Event
4000 Ma Formation of a greenstone belt of the Acasta Gneiss of the Slave craton in Northwest Territories, Canada - the oldest rock belt in the world.[20]
4100–3800 Ma Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB): extended barrage by meteoroids resulting in impact events upon the inner planets. Thermal flux from widespread hydrothermal activity during the LHB may have been conducive to abiogenesis and life's early diversification.[21] "Remains of biotic life" were found in 4.1 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia.[22][23] This is when life most likely arose.
3900–2500 Ma Cells resembling prokaryotes appear.[24] These first organisms are believed[by whom?] to have been chemoautotrophs: they use carbon dioxide as a carbon source and oxidize inorganic materials to extract energy.
3800 Ma Formation of a greenstone belt of the Isua complex of the western Greenland region, whose rocks show an isotope frequency suggestive of the presence of life.[20] The earliest evidences for life on Earth are 3.8 billion-year-old biogenic hematite in a banded iron formation of the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt in Canada,[25] graphite in 3.7 billion-year-old metasedimentary rocks discovered in western Greenland[26] and microbial mat fossils found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone discovered in Western Australia.[27][28]
3500 Ma Lifetime of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA);[29][30] the split between bacteria and archaea occurs.[31]

Bacteria develop primitive forms of photosynthesis which at first did not produce oxygen.[32] These organisms generated Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by exploiting a proton gradient, a mechanism still used in virtually all organisms, unchanged, to this day.[33][34][35]

3200 Ma Diversification and expansion of acritarchs.[36]
3000 Ma Photosynthesizing cyanobacteria evolve; they use water as a reducing agent, thereby producing oxygen as a waste product.[37] The oxygen initially oxidizes dissolved iron in the oceans, creating iron ore. The oxygen concentration in the atmosphere slowly rises, acting as a poison for many bacteria and eventually triggering the Great Oxygenation Event.
2800 Ma Oldest evidence for microbial life on land in the form of organic matter-rich paleosols, ephemeral ponds and alluvial sequences, some of them bearing microfossils.[38]

Proterozoic Eon[edit]

Detail of the eukaryote endomembrane system and its components
Dinoflagellate Ceratium furca
Dickinsonia costata, an iconic Ediacaran organism, displays the characteristic quilted appearance of Ediacaran enigmata.

2500 Ma – 542 Ma. Contains the Palaeoproterozoic, Mesoproterozoic and Neoproterozoic eras.

Date Event
2500 Ma Great Oxidation Event led by cyanobacteria's oxygenic photosynthesis.[37] Commencement of plate tectonics with old marine crust dense enough to subduct.[20]
By 1850 Ma Eukaryotic cells appear. Eukaryotes contain membrane-bound organelles with diverse functions, probably derived from prokaryotes engulfing each other via phagocytosis. (See Symbiogenesis and Endosymbiont). Bacterial viruses (bacteriophage) emerge before, or soon after, the divergence of the prokaryotic and eukaryotic lineages.[39] The appearance of red beds show that an oxidising atmosphere had been produced. Incentives now favoured the spread of eukaryotic life.[40][41][42]
1400 Ma Great increase in stromatolite diversity.
1300 Ma Earliest land fungi[43]
By 1200 Ma Meiosis and sexual reproduction are present in single-celled eukaryotes, and possibly in the common ancestor of all eukaryotes.[44] Sex may even have arisen earlier in the RNA world.[45] Sexual reproduction first appears in the fossil records; it may have increased the rate of evolution.[46]
1000 Ma The first non-marine eukaryotes move onto land. They were photosynthetic and multicellular, indicating that plants evolved much earlier than originally thought.[47]
750 Ma First protozoa (ex: Melanocyrillium); beginning of animal evolution[48][49]
720–630 Ma A global glaciation may have occurred.[50][51] Opinion is divided on whether it increased or decreased biodiversity or the rate of evolution.[52][53][54] It is believed that this was due to evolution of the first land plants, which increased the amount of oxygen and lowered the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.[55]
600 Ma The accumulation of atmospheric oxygen allows the formation of an ozone layer.[56] Prior to this, land-based life would probably have required other chemicals to attenuate ultraviolet radiation enough to permit colonisation of the land.[38]
580–542 Ma The Ediacara biota represent the first large, complex aquatic multicellular organisms — although their affinities remain a subject of debate.[57]
580–500 Ma Most modern phyla of animals begin to appear in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion.[58][59]
550 Ma First fossil evidence for Ctenophora (comb jellies), Porifera (sponges), Anthozoa (corals and sea anemones). Appearance of Ikaria wariootia (an early Bilaterian).

Phanerozoic Eon[edit]

Emergence of animals and plants

542 Ma – present

The Phanerozoic Eon, literally the "period of well-displayed life," marks the appearance in the fossil record of abundant, shell-forming and/or trace-making organisms. It is subdivided into three eras, the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic, which are divided by major mass extinctions.

Palaeozoic Era[edit]

542 Ma – 251.0 Ma and contains the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous and Permian periods.

With only a handful of species surviving today, the Nautiloids flourished during the early Paleozoic era, from the Late Cambrian, where they constituted the main predatory animals.[60]
Haikouichthys, a jawless fish, is popularized as one of the earliest fishes and probably a basal chordate or a basal craniate.[61]
Ferns first appear in the fossil record about 360 million years ago in the late Devonian period.[62]
Date Event
535 Ma Major diversification of living things in the oceans: arthropods (e.g. trilobites, crustaceans), chordates, echinoderms, molluscs, brachiopods, foraminifers and radiolarians, etc.
530 Ma The first known footprints on land date to 530 Ma.[63]
525 Ma Earliest graptolites
511 Ma Earliest crustaceans
510 Ma First cephalopods (nautiloids) and chitons
505 Ma Fossilization of the Burgess Shale
500 Ma Jellyfish have existed since at least this time.
485 Ma First vertebrates with true bones (jawless fishes)
450 Ma First complete conodonts and echinoids appear
440 Ma First agnathan fishes: Heterostraci, Galeaspida, and Pituriaspida
420 Ma Earliest ray-finned fishes, trigonotarbid arachnids, and land scorpions[64]
410 Ma First signs of teeth in fish. Earliest Nautilida, lycophytes, and trimerophytes.
395 Ma First lichens, stoneworts. Earliest harvestmen, mites, hexapods (springtails) and ammonoids. The first known tetrapod tracks on land.
365 Ma Acanthostega is one of the earliest vertebrates capable of walking.
363 Ma By the start of the Carboniferous Period, the Earth begins to resemble its present state. Insects roamed the land and would soon take to the skies; sharks swam the oceans as top predators,[65] and vegetation covered the land, with seed-bearing plants and forests soon to flourish.

Four-limbed tetrapods gradually gain adaptations which will help them occupy a terrestrial life-habit.

360 Ma First crabs and ferns. Land flora dominated by seed ferns. The Xinhang forest grows around this time[66]
350 Ma First large sharks, ratfishes, and hagfish; first crown tetrapods (with five digits and no fins and scales)
340 Ma Diversification of amphibians
330-320 Ma First amniote vertebrates (Paleothyris)
320 Ma Synapsids (precursors to mammals) separate from sauropsids (reptiles) in late Carboniferous.[67]
305 Ma The Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse occurs, causing a minor extinction event, as well as paving the way for amniotes to become dominant over amphibians and seed plants over ferns and lycophytes.

First diapsid reptiles (e.g. Petrolacosaurus)

296 Ma Earliest known octopus (Pohlsepia)
280 Ma Earliest beetles, seed plants and conifers diversify while lepidodendrids and sphenopsids decrease. Terrestrial temnospondyl amphibians and pelycosaurs (e.g. Dimetrodon) diversify in species.
275 Ma Therapsid synapsids separate from pelycosaur synapsids
270 Ma Gorgonopsians appear in the fossil record
251.9-251.4 Ma The Permian–Triassic extinction event eliminates over 90-95% of marine species. Terrestrial organisms were not as seriously affected as the marine biota. This "clearing of the slate" may have led to an ensuing diversification, but life on land took 30 million years to completely recover.[68]

Mesozoic Era[edit]

Utatsusaurus is the earliest-known form of an ichthyopterygian.

From 251.4 Ma to 66 Ma and containing the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Date Event
250 Ma The Mesozoic Marine Revolution begins: increasingly well adapted and diverse predators pressurize sessile marine groups; the "balance of power" in the oceans shifts dramatically as some groups of prey adapt more rapidly and effectively than others.
250 Ma Triadobatrachus massinoti is the earliest known frog
248 Ma Sturgeon and paddlefish (Acipenseridae) first appear.
245 Ma Earliest ichthyosaurs
240 Ma Increase in diversity of cynodonts and rhynchosaurs
225 Ma Earliest dinosaurs (prosauropods), first cardiid bivalves, diversity in cycads, bennettitaleans, and conifers. First teleost fishes. First mammals (Adelobasileus).
220 Ma Seed-producing Gymnosperm forests dominate the land; herbivores grow to huge sizes to accommodate the large guts necessary to digest the nutrient-poor plants.[citation needed] First flies and turtles (Odontochelys). First coelophysoid dinosaurs. First mammals from small-sized cynodonts, which transitioned towards a nocturnal, insectivorous, and endothermic lifestyle.


The Massive extinction of Triassic/Jurassic, that wiped out all pseudosuchians except crocodylomorphs, who transitioned to an aquatic habitat in response to the rapid filling of terrestrial and aerial niches by the dinosaurs and pterosaurs respectively.
200 Ma The first accepted evidence for viruses that infect eukaryotic cells (at least, the group Geminiviridae) existed.[69] Viruses are still poorly understood and may have arisen before "life" itself, or may be a more recent phenomenon.

Major extinctions in terrestrial vertebrates and large amphibians. Earliest examples of armoured dinosaurs

195 Ma First pterosaurs with specialized feeding (Dorygnathus). First sauropod dinosaurs. Diversification in small, ornithischian dinosaurs: heterodontosaurids, fabrosaurids, and scelidosaurids.
190 Ma Pliosauroids appear in the fossil record. First lepidopteran insects (Archaeolepis), hermit crabs, modern starfish, irregular echinoids, corbulid bivalves, and tubulipore bryozoans. Extensive development of sponge reefs.
176 Ma First members of the Stegosauria group of dinosaurs
170 Ma Earliest salamanders, newts, cryptoclidids, elasmosaurid plesiosaurs, and cladotherian mammals. Sauropod dinosaurs diversify.
165 Ma First rays and glycymeridid bivalves. First vampire squids[70]
163 Ma Pterodactyloid pterosaurs first appear[71]
161 Ma Ceratopsian dinosaurs appear in the fossil record (Yinlong) and the oldest known Eutherian Mammal appear in the fossil record: Juramaia.
160 Ma Multituberculate mammals (genus Rugosodon) appear in eastern China
155 Ma First blood-sucking insects (ceratopogonids), rudist bivalves, and cheilostome bryozoans. Archaeopteryx, a possible ancestor to the birds, appears in the fossil record, along with triconodontid and symmetrodont mammals. Diversity in stegosaurian and theropod dinosaurs.
153 Ma First pine trees
140 Ma Orb-weaver spiders appear
135 Ma The rise of the angiosperms: Some of these flowering plants bear structures that attract insects and other animals to spread pollen; other angiosperms were pollinated by wind or water. This innovation causes a major burst of animal evolution through coevolution. First freshwater pelomedusid turtles. Earliest krill.
120 Ma Oldest fossils of heterokonts, including both marine diatoms and silicoflagellates
115 Ma First monotreme mammals
112 Ma Xiphactinus, a large predatory fish, appears in the fossil record
110 Ma First hesperornithes, toothed diving birds. Earliest limopsid, verticordiid, and thyasirid bivalves.
106 Ma Spinosaurus, the largest theropod dinosaur, appears in the fossil record
100 Ma Earliest bees
95 Ma First crocodilians evolve
90 Ma Extinction of ichthyosaurs. Earliest snakes and nuculanid bivalves. Large diversification in angiosperms: magnoliids, rosids, hamamelidids, monocots, and ginger. Earliest examples of ticks. Probable origins of placental mammals (earliest undisputed fossil evidence is 66 Ma).
80 Ma First ants
70 Ma Multituberculate mammals increase in diversity. First yoldiid bivalves.
68 Ma Tyrannosaurus, the largest terrestrial predator of what is now western North America appears in the fossil record. First species of Triceratops.

Cenozoic Era[edit]

66 Ma – present

The bat Icaronycteris appeared 52.2 million years ago
Grass flowers
Date Event
66 Ma The Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event eradicates about half of all animal species, including mosasaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, ammonites, belemnites, rudist and inoceramid bivalves, most planktic foraminifers, and all of the dinosaurs excluding the birds.[72]
66 Ma- Rapid dominance of conifers and ginkgos in high latitudes, along with mammals becoming the dominant species. First psammobiid bivalves. Earliest rodents. Rapid diversification in ants.
63 Ma Evolution of the creodonts, an important group of meat-eating (carnivorous) mammals
62 Ma Evolution of the first penguins
60 Ma Diversification of large, flightless birds. Earliest true primates,[who?] along with the first semelid bivalves, edentate, carnivoran and lipotyphlan mammals, and owls. The ancestors of the carnivorous mammals (miacids) were alive.[citation needed]
59 Ma Earliest sailfish appear
56 Ma Gastornis, a large flightless bird, appears in the fossil record
55 Ma Modern bird groups diversify (first song birds, parrots, loons, swifts, woodpeckers), first whale (Himalayacetus), earliest lagomorphs, armadillos, appearance of sirenian, proboscidean, perissodactyl and artiodactyl mammals in the fossil record. Angiosperms diversify. The ancestor (according to theory) of the species in the genus Carcharodon, the early mako shark Isurus hastalis, is alive.
52 Ma First bats appear (Onychonycteris)
50 Ma Peak diversity of dinoflagellates and nannofossils, increase in diversity of anomalodesmatan and heteroconch bivalves, brontotheres, tapirs, rhinoceroses, and camels appear in the fossil record, diversification of primates
40 Ma Modern-type butterflies and moths appear. Extinction of Gastornis. Basilosaurus, one of the first of the giant whales, appeared in the fossil record.
38 Ma Earliest bears
37 Ma First nimravid ("false saber-toothed cats") carnivores — these species are unrelated to modern-type felines. First alligators
35 Ma Grasses diversify from among the monocot angiosperms; grasslands begin to expand. Slight increase in diversity of cold-tolerant ostracods and foraminifers, along with major extinctions of gastropods, reptiles, amphibians, and multituberculate mammals. Many modern mammal groups begin to appear: first glyptodonts, ground sloths, canids, peccaries, and the first eagles and hawks. Diversity in toothed and baleen whales.
33 Ma Evolution of the thylacinid marsupials (Badjcinus)
30 Ma First balanids and eucalypts, extinction of embrithopod and brontothere mammals, earliest pigs and cats
28 Ma Paraceratherium appears in the fossil record, the largest terrestrial mammal that ever lived. First pelicans.
25 Ma Pelagornis sandersi appears in the fossil record, the largest flying bird that ever lived
25 Ma First deer
24 Ma First pinnipeds
23 Ma Earliest ostriches, trees representative of most major groups of oaks have appeared by now[73]
20 Ma First giraffes, hyenas, and giant anteaters, increase in bird diversity
17 Ma First birds of the genus Corvus (crows)
15 Ma Genus Mammut appears in the fossil record, first bovids and kangaroos, diversity in Australian megafauna
10 Ma Grasslands and savannas are established, diversity in insects, especially ants and termites, horses increase in body size and develop high-crowned teeth, major diversification in grassland mammals and snakes
9.5 Ma[dubious ] The Great American Interchange, where various land and freshwater faunas migrated between North and South America. Armadillos, opossums, hummingbirds Phorusrhacids, Ground Sloths, Glyptodonts, and Meridiungulates traveled to North America, while horses, tapirs, saber-toothed cats, Jaguars, Bears, Coaties, Ferrets, Otters, Skunks and deer entered South America.
9 Ma First platypuses
6.5 Ma First hominins (Sahelanthropus)
6 Ma Australopithecines diversify (Orrorin, Ardipithecus)
5 Ma First tree sloths and hippopotami, diversification of grazing herbivores like zebras and elephants, large carnivorous mammals like lions and the genus Canis, burrowing rodents, kangaroos, birds, and small carnivores, vultures increase in size, decrease in the number of perissodactyl mammals. Extinction of nimravid carnivores. First leopard seals.
4.8 Ma Mammoths appear in the fossil record
4.5 Ma Marine iguanas diverge from land iguanas
4 Ma Evolution of Australopithecus, Stupendemys appears in the fossil record as the largest freshwater turtle, first modern elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions, rhinoceros and gazelles appear in the fossil record
3.6 Ma Blue whales grow to their modern sizes
3 Ma Earliest swordfish
2.7 Ma Evolution of Paranthropus
2.5 Ma The earliest species of Smilodon evolve
2 Ma First members of the genus Homo, Homo Habilis, appear in the fossil record. Diversification of conifers in high latitudes. The eventual ancestor of cattle, aurochs (Bos primigenus), evolves in India.
1.7 Ma Extinction of australopithecines
1.2 Ma Evolution of Homo antecessor. The last members of Paranthropus die out.
1 Ma First coyotes
800 Ka Short-faced bears (Arctodus simus) become abundant in North America
600 ka Evolution of Homo heidelbergensis
400 ka First polar bears
350 ka Evolution of Neanderthals
300 ka Gigantopithecus, a giant relative of the orangutan from Asia dies out
250 ka Anatomically modern humans appear in Africa.[74][75][76] Around 50,000 years before present they start colonising the other continents, replacing the Neanderthals in Europe and other hominins in Asia.
40 ka The last of the giant monitor lizards (Varanus priscus) die out
30 ka Extinction of Neanderthals, first domestic dogs
15 ka The last woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) are believed to have gone extinct
11 ka Short-faced bears vanish from North America, with the last giant ground sloths dying out. All Equidae become extinct in North America.
10 ka The Holocene epoch starts 10,000[77] years ago after the Late Glacial Maximum. The last mainland species of woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenus) die out, as does the last Smilodon species.
8 ka The Giant Lemur died out
Historical extinctions[edit]
Illustration of a Baiji, declared functionally extinct by the Baiji.org Foundation in 2006.[78][79]
Western black rhinoceros, holotype specimen of a female shot in 1911
Thylacine shot in 1936
Date Event
6000 ya (c. 4000 BC) Small populations of American mastodon die off in places like Utah and Michigan.
4500 ya (c. 2500 BC) The last members of a dwarf race of woolly mammoths vanish from Wrangel Island near Alaska.
c. 600 ya (c. 1400) The moa and its predator, Haast's eagle, die out in New Zealand.
395 ya (1627) The last recorded wild aurochs die out.
334 ya (1688) The dodo goes extinct.
254 ya (1768) The Steller's sea cow goes extinct.
139 ya (1883) The quagga, a subspecies of zebra, goes extinct.
117 ya (1905) Wolves become extinct in Japan.
108 ya (1914) Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, dies.
86 ya (1936) The thylacine goes extinct in a Tasmanian zoo, the last member of the family Thylacinidae.
85 ya (1937) The last Bali tiger was shot.
70 ya (1952) The Caribbean monk seal goes extinct.[80]
14 ya (2008) The baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, becomes functionally extinct, according to the IUCN Red List.[81]
11 ya (2011) The western black rhinoceros is declared extinct.

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]