Skip to Content

Impact of the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum on Animal Extinctions and Evolution

Skyblue Overland may earn a small commission from affiliate links in this article.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was a period of rapid global warming 55.8 million years ago, causing significant extinctions and evolutionary changes in both marine and terrestrial animal life.

The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was a significant climatic event that occurred around 55.8 million years ago, characterized by a rapid and extreme rise in global temperatures. This period, which lasted approximately 200,000 years, saw temperatures increase by about 5–8°C (9–14°F), profoundly affecting the planet’s climate, ecosystems, and animal life. The PETM is marked by massive releases of carbon into the atmosphere and oceans, leading to drastic changes in both marine and terrestrial environments.

This article explores the impact of the PETM on animal life, including extinctions and the evolution of new species in response to the changing climate.

Understanding the PETM

The PETM represents a boundary between the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. It is identified by a significant negative carbon isotope excursion (CIE), indicating a large influx of ^13C-depleted carbon into the atmosphere and oceans. This carbon likely came from volcanic activity, methane clathrate release, or organic carbon reservoirs, resulting in elevated atmospheric CO₂ levels and global warming. The PETM’s climatic changes had far-reaching effects on animal life, leading to both extinctions and the emergence of new species.

Marine Life During the PETM

Extinctions in Marine Ecosystems

The PETM had profound impacts on marine life, particularly deep-sea organisms. One of the most significant consequences was the mass extinction of benthic foraminifera, a group of single-celled organisms living on the seafloor. These organisms play a crucial role in the marine carbon cycle, and their extinction is attributed to the anoxic conditions (lack of oxygen) in the deep oceans. Warmer temperatures reduce oxygen solubility in seawater, leading to widespread anoxia. This extinction event is notable because it occurred rapidly and affected a significant portion of benthic foraminiferal species.

Benthic foraminifera such as Nuttallides truempyi and Gavelinella beccariiformis were particularly impacted. The collapse of these populations disrupted the marine carbon cycle, as benthic foraminifera play a key role in the sequestration of organic carbon in ocean sediments.

Another group heavily impacted by the PETM was planktonic foraminifera, which float in the ocean’s surface waters. While they did not experience mass extinction to the same extent as benthic foraminifera, there were notable changes in their species composition and distribution. Warmer ocean temperatures and changes in ocean circulation patterns led to shifts in the habitats and food availability for these organisms. Species such as Morozovella velascoensis thrived in the warmer, more stratified oceans, while others adapted to the changing conditions by altering their ecological niches.

Coral Reefs and Ocean Acidification

Coral reefs, which are highly sensitive to changes in temperature and acidity, also suffered during the PETM. The increased levels of CO₂ in the atmosphere led to ocean acidification, as CO₂ dissolved in seawater forms carbonic acid. This process lowers the pH of the oceans, making it more difficult for calcifying organisms, such as corals and certain types of plankton, to build their calcium carbonate skeletons. While there is limited direct fossil evidence of coral reef extinctions during the PETM, the conditions would have been highly stressful for these ecosystems, likely leading to declines in coral abundance and diversity.

Evidence from foraminiferal assemblages suggests that reef-building corals experienced significant stress. The dissolution of calcium carbonate shells in the fossil record indicates that many calcifying organisms struggled to survive in the more acidic conditions. This would have had cascading effects on reef ecosystems, impacting the diverse array of species that rely on coral reefs for habitat and food.

Coral reef wildlife nature collage.

Terrestrial Life During the PETM

Mammalian Evolution and Dispersal

On land, the PETM saw significant changes in mammalian evolution and dispersal. The warming climate created new habitats and ecological niches, leading to the rapid diversification and migration of mammalian species. Modern mammal orders, including primates, ungulates (hoofed mammals), and rodents, first appeared or rapidly diversified during this period. Fossil evidence from sites in North America and Europe shows a sudden influx of new mammal species, suggesting that these animals migrated across newly accessible land bridges and colonized new areas.

One of the most significant aspects of mammalian evolution during the PETM was the appearance of early primates. These small, arboreal animals thrived in the warm, forested environments that expanded during the PETM. The diversification of primates during this period laid the groundwork for the evolution of more advanced primates, including humans. Fossils of early primates like Teilhardina asiatica have been found in regions as diverse as China, Europe, and North America, indicating widespread dispersal and adaptation to new environments.

Ungulates, such as early horses and artiodactyls, also experienced rapid diversification during the PETM. The small, forest-dwelling horse Hyracotherium, for example, appeared during this period and spread across North America and Europe. This early horse adapted to the warmer, wetter climates by evolving smaller body sizes and more efficient dentition for browsing on soft vegetation.

Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptiles and amphibians also experienced changes during the PETM. Warmer temperatures allowed these cold-blooded animals to expand their ranges into higher latitudes. Fossil evidence shows that crocodilians, for example, were present in areas as far north as the Arctic Circle during the PETM, taking advantage of the warmer climate and abundant prey.

Turtles, lizards, and snakes also diversified and expanded their ranges. Fossils of large reptiles like the giant turtle Gigantophis have been found in Eocene deposits, indicating that these animals thrived in the warm, humid environments created by the PETM.

Extinctions on Land

While the PETM is often associated with diversification and evolutionary opportunities for many species, it also led to extinctions, particularly among those unable to adapt to the rapid environmental changes.

Small Mammals and Insects

Some small mammals and insect species went extinct during the PETM. The exact causes of these extinctions are not always clear, but they likely resulted from a combination of factors, including habitat loss, competition for resources, and changes in food availability. Insects, which are highly sensitive to temperature changes, experienced shifts in their populations and distributions, leading to local extinctions and the emergence of new species better suited to the warmer climate.

Insect fossils from this period show changes in diversity and abundance, with some species disappearing from the fossil record entirely. The warm, humid conditions favored the proliferation of certain insect groups, such as beetles and ants, which adapted to the new environmental conditions.

Plant-Animal Interactions

The PETM’s impact on vegetation also influenced animal life. The expansion of tropical and subtropical forests provided new habitats and food sources for herbivorous mammals and other animals. However, these changes also brought challenges, as animals had to adapt to new diets and competitive pressures.

The spread of broadleaf forests and the decline of coniferous forests led to changes in the availability of food for herbivores. Mammals that could exploit the new resources, such as the fruit and leaves of flowering plants, thrived, while those dependent on conifers and other declining plant groups faced challenges.

Marine-Terrestrial Linkages

The PETM highlights the interconnectedness of marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Changes in ocean temperatures and chemistry affected marine food webs, which in turn influenced coastal and terrestrial food webs. For example, changes in plankton populations could impact fish and other marine predators, which might then affect birds and other animals that feed on them. This interconnectedness underscores the complexity of ecological responses to climate change.

Long-Term Evolutionary Impacts

The PETM’s long-term evolutionary impacts are profound. The rapid environmental changes forced species to adapt quickly or face extinction. This period of intense natural selection accelerated evolutionary processes, leading to the emergence of new species and the extinction of others.

Diversification of Mammals

The PETM is often seen as a critical period for the diversification of mammals. The warm climates and new habitats created opportunities for mammals to evolve and occupy new ecological niches. This period saw the rise of many modern mammal groups, including early forms of primates, horses, and ungulates.

The evolutionary pressures of the PETM led to the development of new adaptations, such as more efficient dentition for herbivory, changes in body size and shape to cope with different environmental conditions, and the evolution of social behaviors to navigate complex ecosystems.

Lessons for Modern Climate Change

Studying the PETM provides valuable insights into the potential impacts of current and future climate change. The rapid warming and associated environmental changes during the PETM offer a historical analog for understanding how modern ecosystems might respond to similar stresses. The PETM demonstrates that while some species may thrive and diversify in response to climate change, others may face extinction if they cannot adapt quickly enough.

The PETM also highlights the importance of understanding the interconnectedness of Earth’s systems. Changes in one part of the ecosystem can have cascading effects on other parts, leading to complex and often unpredictable outcomes.

Recovery and Resilience

The recovery from the PETM involved the gradual re-sequestration of carbon through various natural processes. Increased weathering rates due to higher temperatures likely played a role in drawing down atmospheric CO₂ levels. The burial of organic carbon in sediments and the formation of new carbonate deposits also contributed to the recovery.

Ecosystems gradually adapted to the new conditions, with new species evolving to fill the ecological niches left vacant by extinctions. This period of recovery underscores the resilience of life on Earth and the capacity for ecosystems to rebound from significant climatic disruptions.


The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum was a time of dramatic environmental change that had profound impacts on animal life on Earth. While some species went extinct due to the rapid warming and associated changes in their habitats, others thrived and diversified, leading to significant evolutionary developments. The PETM provides a valuable case study for understanding the potential consequences of rapid climate change and highlights the importance of studying past events to inform our responses to modern environmental challenges.

The PETM serves as a reminder of the dynamic and interconnected nature of Earth’s ecosystems and the critical role that climate plays in shaping the evolution and distribution of life. By learning from this ancient climatic event, we can better prepare for and mitigate the impacts of ongoing and future climate change.

Popular Articles:

Catastrophic Landslide Shuts Down Teton Pass Road Near Jackson, WY

Planning the Perfect Adventure Trip to Rapid City, South Dakota

The Ultimate Pants For Travel, The Outdoors & Every Day

Adventurer’s Guide to Channel Islands National Park, California

Roark’s Journey Shirt: Your New Go-To for Effortless Style and Adventure!