Plate Tectonics, the Fossil Record, and Climate



Some questions and perspectives that can be explored in this context:

The first question was more important during early arguments on continental drift, and Alfred Wegener definitely considered the distribution of fossils as favorable to the idea of continental drift. The second question has become more important as plate tectonics has been accepted, and the third has developed as humanity has sought to understand global climate change better.

Glossopteris leaf fossil - one of the fossils common to Pangea continental partners - an example of the information available in documenting paleobiogeographic distribution. This particular sample is from the Ellsworth Mountains of Antarctica. Image source: (Photo Credit USGS DDS21) as found at

Some background on history of life on earth you can delve into.


Biogeography a critical discipline here - looks at the geographic distribution of organisms and seeks explanations. Evolutionary biology a crucial science that overlaps with biogeography. Using the general approach of uniformitarianism, understanding the present distribution of life can inform our understanding of the distribution of past life (as evident the fossil record).

Example of a biogeographic map, in this case of biodiversity. Note the strong latitudinal control. However, also note the local departures from a strict latitudinal control. At least some of these departures reflect tectonic topography. Can you pick out some examples?? Image source: USGS - .

What environmental factors influence biogeographic distribution? Then consider, how does tectonics influence such factors?

Two important concepts within biogeography:

A few lessons from the present day biogeography:

There is generally more biodiversity in warmer climates than colder for terrestrial organisms, but not necessarily for marine organisms. Increased biodiversity can also be associated with mountains.

A variety of ant eaters:

Wallace's line and other contributions:


This is usually covered in some degree in a Historical Geology course.

Hallam's faunal assemblage behavior:

What events explain the stratigraphic distribution of a fossil species in a region?

Dispersal mechanisms (that aid migration):

Barriers to migration:


In class exercise: Supercontinents and biogeographic patterns. Gondwana and Pangea are large continental masses (super continents) that formed and split apart. So in addition to the Wilson cycle, which explores the type of history we would expect on a continent scale, there is a proposed supercontinent cycle that is thought to have occurred on a global scale (more on this later upcoming). Break up into groups of 2-3 and work on developing a cycle diagram that depicts how biogeographic patterns would change with the continental configuration, a la the Wilson and supercontinent cycle. Use as many of the relevant terms introduced above in your diagram. Consider different types of organisms: marine vs. terrestrial is a major distinction, but there are others. After fifteen minutes of brainstorming, a spokesperson will present the groups results to the class.

The Mesozoic world was a time of supercontinent dispersal . How might of this affected the history of life? Source of image - USGS publication - Dynamic Earth.

Examples in the fossil record

Gondwana associated examples (classic historical geology content):

Panamanian isthmus related examples:

De Geer Route of mammal dispersal (based on McKenna, 1975).


Ural mountains in Russia:

Idea that plate tectonics influenced hominid evolution?

A paper waiting to be done? - what is the role of suspect and exotic terrane tectonics in biogeographic behavior.
Role of mantle convection and LIPs?

The fundamental mechanism here is a change in frequency/type of volcanism influencing surface geochemical systems and thereby climate and ocean chemistry,that in turn influences the history of life (e.g. McKenzie et al. 2014).

Graph modified from Rohde & Muller (2005), and image source: .

What are major punctuations in history of life and possible explanations:

Image of tectonic setting of the Western Interior Seaway from the USGS, In part the seaway existed as a foreland basin associated with subduction related crustal thickening, and in part because global sea levels were high at this time.

Origin of life and submarine hot springs and black smokers? Genetic communication betwee vents?

Plate tectonics and the long term carbon cycle

What is the long term carbon cycle?

Eocene cooling (and start of Antarctic ice cap):

Role of geologic return of carbon dioxide in ending the Vendian Ice Ages.

What is the potential role of CCD in the carbon cycle?

Weathering of ultramafics in particular draws down CO2 (USGS site on potential use in carbon sequestration). Specifically the weathering converts carbon dioxide into bicarbonate ions, and the thought is that these then end being precipitated as carbonate minerals.

Plenty of interesting research to be done on this topic.

Some links:

Paleo Integration Project (PIP) - still in development.

Trilobite paleogeography.


Course materials for Plate Tectonics, GEOL 3700, University of Nebraska at Omaha. Instructor: H. D. Maher Jr., copyright. This material may be used for non-profit educational purposes with appropriate attribution of authorship. Otherwise please contact author.