Competitive Exams: Evolution Time Scale: Mesozoic

Mesozoic Vegetation

A few words in the language of the modern botanist will show how this vegetation harmonises with the story of evolution. Plants are broadly divided into the lower kingdom of the Cryptogams (spore-bearing) and the upper kingdom of the Phanerogams (seed-bearing). As we saw, the Primary Era was predominantly the age of Cryptogams; the later periods witness the rise and supremacy of the Phanerogams. But these in turn are broadly divided into a less advanced group, the Gymnosperms, and a more advanced group, the Angiosperms or flowering plants. And, just as the Primary Era is the age of Cryptogams, the Secondary is the age of Gymnosperms, and the Tertiary (and present) is the age of Angiosperms. Of about 180, 000 species of plants in nature to-day more than 100, 000 are Angiosperms; yet up to the end of the Jurassic not a single true Angiosperm is found in the geological record.

This is a broad manifestation of evolution, but it is not quite an accurate statement, and its inexactness still more strongly confirms the theory of evolution. Though the Primary Era was predominantly the age of Cryptogams, we saw that a very large number of seed-bearing plants, with very mixed characters, appeared before its close. It thus prepares the way for the cycads and conifers and ginkgoes of the Mesozoic, which we may conceive as evolved from one or other branch of the mixed Carboniferous vegetation. We next find that the Mesozoic is by no means purely an age of Gymnosperms. I do not mean merely that the Angiosperms appear in force before its close, and were probably evolved much earlier. The fact is that the Gymnosperms of the Mesozoic are often of a curiously mixed character, and well illustrate the transition to the Angiosperms, though they may not be their actual ancestors. This will be clearer if we glance in succession at the various types of plant which adorned and enriched the Jurassic world.

The European or American landscape--indeed, the aspect of the earth generally, for there are no pronounced zones of climate--is still utterly different from any that we know to-day. No grass carpets the plains; none of the flowers or trees with which we are familiar, except conifers, are found in any region. Ferns grow in great abundance, and have now reached many of the forms with which we are acquainted. Thickets of bracken spread over the plains; clumps of Royal ferns and Hartstongues spring up in moister parts. The trees are conifers, cycads, and trees akin to the ginkgo, or Maidenhair Tree, of modern Japan. Cypresses, yews, firs, and araucarias (the Monkey Puzzle group) grow everywhere, though the species are more primitive than those of today. The broad, fan-like leaves and plum-like fruit of the ginkgoales, of which the temple-gardens of Japan have religiously preserved a solitary descendant, are found in the most distant regions. But the most frequent and characteristic tree of the Jurassic landscape is the cycad.

The cycads--the botanist would say Cycadophyta or Cycadales, to mark them off from the cycads of modern times--formed a third of the whole Jurassic vegetation, while to-day they number only about a hundred species in 180, 000, and are confined to warm latitudes. All over the earth, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, their palm-like foliage showered from the top of their generally short stems in the Jurassic. But the most interesting point about them is that a very large branch of them (the Bennettiteae) went far beyond the modern Gymnosperm in their flowers and fruit, and approached the Angiosperms. Their fructifications “rivalled the largest flowers of the present day in structure and modelling” (Scott), and possibly already gave spots of sober colour to the monotonous primitive landscape. On the other hand, they approached the ferns so much more closely than modern cycads do that it is often impossible to say whether Jurassic remains must be classed as ferns or cycads.

Pedigrees of Plants

We have here, therefore, a most interesting evolutionary group. The botanist finds even more difficulty than the zoologist in drawing up the pedigrees of his plants, but the general features of the larger groups which he finds in succession in the chronicle of the earth point very decisively to evolution. The seed-bearing ferns of the Coal-forest point upward to the later stage, and downward to a common origin with the ordinary spore-bearing ferns. Some of them are “altogether of a cycadean type” (Scott) in respect of the seed. On the other hand, the Bennettiteae of the Jurassic have the mixed characters of ferns, cycads, and flowering plants, and thus, in their turn, point downward to a lower ancestry and upward to the next great stage in plant-development. It is not suggested that the seed-ferns we know evolved into the cycads we know, and these in turn into our flowering plants. It is enough for the student of evolution to see in them so many stages in the evolution of plants up to the Angiosperm level. The gaps between the various groups are less rigid than scientific men used to think.

Taller than the cycads, firmer in the structure of the wood, and destined to survive in thousands of species when the cycads would be reduced to a hundred, were the pines and yews and other conifers of the Jurassic landscape. We saw them first appearing, in the stunted Walchias and Voltzias, during the severe conditions of the Permian period. Like the birds and mammals they await the coming of a fresh period of cold to give them a decided superiority over the cycads. Botanists look for their ancestors in some form related to the Cordaites of the Coal-forest. The ginkgo trees seem to be even more closely related to the Cordaites, and evolved from an early and generalised branch of that group. The Cordaites, we may recall, more or less united in one tree the characters of the conifer (in their wood) and the cycad (in their fruit).

So much for the evolutionary aspect of the Jurassic vegetation in itself. Slender as the connecting links are, it points clearly enough to a selection of higher types during the Permian revolution from the varied mass of the Carboniferous flora, and it offers in turn a singularly varied and rich group from which a fresh selection may choose yet higher types. We turn now to consider the animal population which, directly or indirectly, fed upon it, and grew with its growth. To the reptiles, the birds, and the mammals, we must devote special chapters. Here we may briefly survey the less conspicuous animals of the Mesozoic Epoch.

Renewed luxuriance of the Vegetation

The insects would be one of the chief classes to benefit by the renewed luxuriance of the vegetation. The Hymenopters (butterflies) have not yet appeared. They will, naturally, come with the flowers in the next great phase of organic life. But all the other orders of insects are represented, and many of our modern genera are fully evolved. The giant insects of the Coal-forest, with their mixed patriarchal features, have given place to more definite types. Swarms of dragon-flies, may-flies, termites (with wings), crickets, and cockroaches, may be gathered from the preserved remains. The beetles (Coleopters) have come on the scene in the Triassic, and prospered exceedingly. In some strata three-fourths of the insects are beetles, and as we find that many of them are wood-eaters, we are not surprised. Flies (Dipters) and ants (Hymenopters) also are found, and, although it is useless to expect to find the intermediate forms of such frail creatures, the record is of some evolutionary interest. The ants are all winged. Apparently there is as yet none of the remarkable division of labour which we find in the ants to-day, and we may trust that some later period of change may throw light on its origin.

Just as the growth of the forests--for the Mesozoic vegetation has formed immense coal-beds in many parts of the world, even in Yorkshire and Scotland--explains this great development of the insects, they would in their turn supply a rich diet to the smaller land animals and flying animals of the time. We shall see this presently. Let us first glance at the advances among the inhabitants of the seas.

The most important and stimulating event in the seas is the arrival of the Ammonite. One branch of the early shell-fish, it will be remembered, retained the head of its naked ancestor, and lived at the open mouth of its shell, thus giving birth to the Cephalopods. The first form was a long, straight, tapering shell, sometimes several feet long. In the course of time new forms with curved shells appeared, and began to displace the straight-shelled. Then Cephalopods with close-coiled shells, like the nautilus, came, and--such a shell being an obvious advantage--displaced the curved shells. In the Permian, we saw, a new and more advanced type of the coiled-shell animal, the Ammonite, made its appearance, and in the Triassic and Jurassic it becomes the ogre or tyrant of the invertebrate world. Sometimes an inch or less in diameter, it often attained a width of three feet or more across the shell, at the aperture of which would be a monstrous and voracious mouth.

The Ammonites are not merely interesting as extinct monsters of the earth's Middle Ages, and stimulating terrors of the deep to the animals on which they fed. They have an especial interest for the evolutionist. The successive chambers which the animal adds, as it grows, to the habitation of its youth, leave the earlier chambers intact. By removing them in succession in the adult form we find an illustration of the evolution of the elaborate shell of the Jurassic Ammonite. It is an admirable testimony to the validity of the embryonic law we have often quoted--that the young animal is apt to reproduce the past stages of its ancestry--that the order of the building of the shell in the late Ammonite corresponds to the order we trace in its development in the geological chronicle. About a thousand species of Ammonites were developed in the Mesozoic, and none survived the Mesozoic. Like the Trilobites of the Primary Era, like the contemporary great reptiles on land, the Ammonites were an abortive growth, enjoying their hour of supremacy until sterner conditions bade them depart. The pretty nautilus is the only survivor to-day of the vast Mesozoic population of coiled-shell Cephalopods.