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THE ANCIENT
LIFE-HISTORY
OF THEĀ EARTH

Chapter 12:

THE CARBONIFEROUS PERIOD.


Overlying the Devonian formation is the great and important series of the Carboniferous Rocks, so called because workable beds of coal are more commonly and more largely developed in this formation than in any other. Workable coal-seams, however, occur in various other formations (Jurassic, Cretaceous, Tertiary), so that coal is not an exclusively Carboniferous product; whilst even in the Coal-measures themselves the coal bears but a very small proportion to the total thickness of strata, occurring only in comparatively thin beds intercalated in a great series of sandstones, shales, and other genuine aqueous sediments.

Page 158 Stratigraphically, the Carboniferous rocks usually repose conformably upon the highest Devonian beds, so that the line of demarcation between the Carboniferous and Devonian formations is principally a palæontological one, founded on the observed differences in the fossils of the two groups. On the other hand, the close of the Carboniferous period seems to have been generally, though not universally, signalised by movements of the crust of the earth, so that the succeeding Permian beds often lie unconformably upon the Carboniferous sediments.

Strata of Carboniferous age have been discovered in almost every large land-area which has been sufficiently investigated; but they are especially largely developed in Britain, in various parts of the continent of Europe, and in North America. Their general composition, however, is, comparatively speaking, so uniform, that it will suffice to take a comprehensive view of the formation without considering any one area in detail, though in each region the subdivisions of the formation are known by distinctive local names. Taking such a comprehensive view, it is found that the Carboniferous series is generally divisible into a Lower and essentially calcareous group (the "Sub-Carboniferous" or "Carboniferous Limestone"); a Middle and principally arenaceous group (the "Millstone Grit"); and an Upper group, of alternating shales and sandstones, with workable seams of coal (the "Coal-measures").

I. The Carboniferous, Sub-Carboniferous, or Mountain Limestone Series constitutes the general base of the Carboniferous system. As typically developed in Britain, the Carboniferous Limestone is essentially a calcareous formation, sometimes consisting of a mass of nearly pure limestone from 1000 to 2000 feet in thickness, or at other times of successive great beds of limestone with subordinate sandstones and shales. In the north of England the base of the series consists of pebbly conglomerates and coarse sandstones; and in Scotland generally, the group is composed of massive sandstones with a comparatively feeble development of the calcareous element. In Ireland, again, the base of the Carboniferous Limestone is usually considered to be formed by a locally-developed group of grits and shales (the "Coomhola Grits" and "Carboniferous Slate"), which attain the thickness of about 5000 feet, and contain an intermixture of Devonian with Carboniferous types of fossils. Seeing that the Devonian formation is generally conformable to the Carboniferous, we need feel no surprise at this intermixture of forms; nor does it Page 159 appear to be of great moment whether these strata be referred to the former or to the latter series. Perhaps the most satisfactory course is to regard the Coomhola Grits and Carboniferous Slates as "passage-beds" between the Devonian and Carboniferous; but any view that may be taken as to the position of these beds, really leaves unaffected the integrity of the Devonian series as a distinct life-system, which, on the whole, is more closely allied to the Silurian than to the Carboniferous. In North America, lastly, the Sub-Carboniferous series is never purely calcareous, though in the interior of the continent it becomes mainly so. In other regions, however, it consists principally of shales and sandstones, with subordinate beds of limestone, and sometimes with this beds of coal or deposits of clay-ironstone.

II. The Millstone Grit.—The highest beds of the Carboniferous Limestone series are succeeded, generally with perfect conformity, by a series of arenaceous beds, usually known as the Millstone Grit. As typically developed in Britain, this group consists of hard quartzose sandstones, often so large-grained and coarse in texture as to properly constitute fine conglomerates. In other cases there are regular conglomerates, sometimes with shales, limestones, and thin beds of coal—the thickness of the whole series, when well developed, varying from 1000 to 5000 feet. In North America, the Millstone Grit rarely reaches 1000 feet in thickness; and, like its British equivalent, consists of coarse sandstones and grits, sometimes with regular conglomerates. Whilst the Carboniferous Limestone was undoubtedly deposited in a tranquil ocean of considerable depth, the coarse mechanical sediments of the Millstone Grit indicate the progressive shallowing of the Carboniferous seas, and the consequent supervention of shore-conditions.

III. The Coal-measures.—The Coal-measures properly so called rest conformably upon the Millstone Grit, and usually consist of a vast series of sandstones, shales, grits, and coals, sometimes with beds of limestone, attaining in some regions a total thickness of from 7000 to nearly 14,000 feet. Beds of workable coal are by no means unknown in some areas in the inferior group of the Sub-Carboniferous; but the general statement is true, that coal is mostly obtained from the true Coal-measures—the largest known, and at present most productive coal-fields of the world being in Great Britain, North America, and Belgium. Wherever they are found, with limited exceptions, the Coal-measures present a singular general uniformity of mineral composition. They Page 160 consist, namely, of an indefinite alternation of beds of sandstone, shale, and coal, sometimes with bands of clay-ironstone or beds of limestone, repeated in no constant order, but sometimes attaining the enormous aggregate thickness of 14,000 feet, or little short of 3 miles. The beds of coal differ in number and thickness in different areas, but they seldom or never exceed one-fiftieth part of the total bulk of the formation in thickness. The characters of the coal itself, and the way in which the coal-beds were deposited, will be briefly alluded to in speaking of the vegetable life of the period. In Britain, and in the Old World generally, the Coal-measures are composed partly of genuine terrestrial deposits—such as the coal—and partly of sediments accumulated in the fresh or brackish waters of vast lagoons, estuaries, and marshes. The fossils of the Coal-measures in these regions are therefore necessarily the remains either of terrestrial plants and animals, or of such forms of life as inhabit fresh or brackish waters, the occurrence of strata with marine fossils being quite a local and occasional phenomenon. In various parts of North America, on the other hand, the Coal-measures, in addition to sandstones, shales, coal-seams, and bands of clay-ironstone, commonly include beds of limestone, charged with marine remains, and indicating marine conditions. The subjoined section (fig. 107) gives, in a generalised form, the succession of the Carboniferous strata in such a British area as the north of England, where the series is developed in a typical form.

As regards the life of the Carboniferous period, we naturally find, as has been previously noticed, great differences in different parts of the entire series, corresponding to the different mode of origin of the beds. Speaking generally, the Lower Carboniferous (or the Sub-Carboniferous) is characterised by the remains of marine animals; whilst the Upper Carboniferous (or Coal-measures) is characterised by the remains of plants and terrestrial animals. In all those cases, however, in which marine beds are found in the series of the Coal-measures, as is common in America, then we find that the fossils agree in their general characters with those of the older marine deposits of the period.

Owing to the fact that coal is simply compressed and otherwise altered vegetable matter, and that it is of the highest economic value to man, the Coal-measures have been more thoroughly explored than any other group of strata of equivalent thickness in the entire geological series. Hence we have already a very extensive acquaintance with the plants of the Carboniferous period; and our knowledge on this subject is Page 161 daily undergoing increase. It is not to be supposed, however, that the remains of plants are found solely in Coal-measures; GENERALIZED SECTION OF THE CARBONIFEROUS STRATA OF THE NORTH OF ENGLAND.
Fig. 107.
Fig. 107
for though most abundant towards the summit, they are found in less numbers in all parts of the series. Wherever found, they belong to the same great types of Page 162 vegetation; but, before reviewing these, a few words must be said as to the origin and mode of formation of coal.

The coal-beds, as before mentioned, occur interstratified with shales, sandstones, and sometimes limestones; and there may, within the limits of a single coal-field, be as many as 80 or 100 of such beds, placed one above the other at different levels, and varying in thickness from a few inches up to 20 or 30 feet. As a general rule, each bed of coal rests upon a bed of shale or clay, which is termed the "under-clay," and in which are found numerous roots of plants; whilst the strata immediately on the top of the coal may be shaly or sandy, but in either case are generally charged with the leaves and stems of plants, and often have upright trunks passing vertically through them. When we add to this that the coal itself is, chemically, nearly wholly composed of carbon, and that its microscopic structure shows it to be composed almost entirely of fragments of stems, leaves, bark, seeds, and vegetable débris derived from land-plants, we are readily enabled to understand how the coal was formed. The "under-clay" immediately beneath the coal-bed represents an old land-surface—sometimes, perhaps, the bottom of a swamp or marsh, covered with a luxuriant vegetation; the coal bed itself represents the slow accumulation, through long periods, of the leaves, seeds, fruits, stems, and fallen trunks of this vegetation, now hardened and compressed into a fraction of its original bulk by the pressure of the superincumbent rocks; and the strata of sand or shale above the coal-bed—the so-called "roof" of the coal—represent sediments quietly deposited as the land, after a long period of repose, commenced to sink beneath the sea. On this view, the rank and long-continued vegetation which gave rise to each coal-bed was ultimately terminated by a slow depression of the surface on which the plants grew. The land-surface then became covered by the water, and aqueous sediments were accumulated to a greater or less thickness upon the dense mass of decaying vegetation below, enveloping any trunks of trees which might still be in an erect position, and preserving between their layers the leaves and branches of plants brought down from the neighbouring land by streams, or blown into the wafer by the wind. Finally, there set in a slow movement of elevation,—the old land again reappeared above the water; a new and equally luxuriant vegetation flourished upon the new land-surface; and another coal-bed was accumulated, to be preserved ultimately in a similar fashion. Some few beds of coal may have been formed by drifted vegetable matter brought down into the ocean by rivers, Page 163 and deposited directly on the bottom of the sea; but in the majority of cases the coal is undeniably the result of the slow growth and decay of plants in situ: and as the plants of the coal are not marine plants, it is necessary to adopt some such theory as the above to account for the formation of coal-seams. By this theory, as is obvious, we are compelled to suppose that the vast alluvial and marshy flats upon which the coal-plants grew were liable to constantly-recurring oscillations of level, the successive land-surfaces represented by the successive coal-beds of any coal-field being thus successively buried beneath accumulations of mud or sand. We have no need, however, to suppose that these oscillations affected large areas at the same time; and geology teaches us that local elevations and depressions of the land have been matters of constant occurrence throughout the whole of past time.

All the varieties of coal (bituminous coal, anthracite; cannel-coal, &c.) show a more or less distinct "lamination"—that is to say, they are more or less obviously composed of successive thin layers, differing slightly in colour and texture. All the varieties of coal, also, consist chemically of carbon, with varying proportions of certain gaseous constituents and a small amount of incombustible mineral or "ash." By cutting thin and transparent slices of coal, we are further enabled, by means of the microscope, to ascertain precisely not only that the carbon of the coal is derived from vegetables, but also, in many cases, what kinds of plants, and what parts of these, enter into the formation of coal. When examined in this way, all coals are found to consist more or less entirely of vegetable matter; but there is considerable difference in different coals as to the exact nature of this. By Professor Huxley it has been shown that many of the English coals consist largely of accumulations of rounded discoidal sacs or bags, which are unquestionably the seed-vessels or "spore-cases" of certain of the commoner coal-plants (such as the Lepidodendra). The best bituminous coals seem to be most largely composed of these spore-cases; whilst inferior kinds possess a progressively increasing amount of the dull carbonaceous substance which is known as "mineral charcoal," and which is undoubtedly composed of "the stems and leaves of plants reduced to little more than their carbon." On the other hand, Principal Dawson finds that the American coals only occasionally exhibit spore-cases to any extent, but consist principally of the cells, vessels, and fibres of the bark, integumentary coverings, and woody portions of the Carboniferous plants.

The number of plants already known to have existed Page 164 during the Carboniferous period is so great, that nothing more can be done here than to notice briefly the typical and characteristic groups of these—such as the Ferns, the Calamites, the Lepidodendroids, the Sigillarioids, and the Conifers.

In accordance with M. Brongniart's generalisation, that the Palæozoic period is, botanically speaking, the "Age of Acrogens," we find the Carboniferous plants to be still mainly referable to the Flowerless or "Cryptogamous" division of the vegetable kingdom. The flowering or "Phanerogamous" plants, which form the bulk of our existing vegetation, are hardly known, with certainty, to have existed at all in the Carboniferous era, except as represented by trees related to the existing Pines and Fig. 108
Fig. 108.—Odontopteris Schlotheimii. Carboniferous, Europe and North America.
Firs, and possibly by the Cycads or "false palms."[18] Amongst the "Cryptogams," there is no more striking or beautiful group of Carboniferous plants than the Ferns. Remains of these are found all through the Carboniferous, but in exceptional numbers in the Coal-measures, and include both herbaceous forms like the majority of existing species, and arborescent forms resembling the living Tree-ferns of New Zealand. Amongst the latter, together with some new types, are examples of the genera Psaronius and Caulopteris, both of Page 165 which date from the Devonian. The simply herbaceous ferns are extremely numerous, and belong to such widely-distributed and Fig. 109
Fig. 109.—Calamites cannœformis. Carboniferous Rocks, Europe and North America.
largely-represented genera as Neuropteris, Odontopteris (fig. 108), Alethopteris, Pecopteris, Sphenopteris, Hymenophyllites, &c.

[Footnote 18: Whilst the vegetation of the Coal-period was mainly a terrestrial one, aquatic plants are not unknown. Sea-weeds (such as the Spirophyton cauda-Galli) are common in some of the marine strata; whilst coal, according to the researches of the Abbé Castracane, is asserted commonly to contain the siliceous envelopes of Diatoms.]

The fossils known as Calamites (fig. 109) are very common Page 166 in the Carboniferous deposits, and have given occasion to an abundance of research and speculation. They present themselves as prostrate and flattened striated stems, or as similar uncompressed stems growing in an erect position, and sometimes attaining a length of twenty feet or more. Externally, the stems are longitudinally ribbed, with transverse joints at regular intervals, these joints giving origin to a whorl or branchlets, which mayor may not give origin to similar whorls of smaller branchlets still. The stems, further, were hollow, with transverse partitions at the joints, and having neither true wood nor bark, but only a thin external fibrous shell. There can be little doubt but that the Calamites are properly regarded as colossal representatives of the little Horse-tails (Equisetaceœ) of the present day. They agree with these not only in the general details of their organisation, but also in the fact that the fruit was a species of cone, bearing "spore-cases" under scales. According to Principal Dawson, the Calamites "grew in dense brakes on the sandy and muddy flats, subject to inundation, or perhaps even in water; and they had the power of budding out from the base of the stem, so as to form clumps of plants, and also of securing their foothold by numerous cord-like roots proceeding from various heights on the lower part of the stem."

The Lepidodendroids, represented mainly by the genus Lepidodendron itself (fig. 110), were large tree-like plants, which attain their maximum in the Carboniferous period, but which appear to commence in the Upper Silurian, are well represented in the Devonian, and survive in a diminished form into the Permian. The trunks of the larger species of Lepidodendron at times reach a length of fifty feet and upwards, giving off branches in a regular bifurcating manner. The bark is marked with numerous rhombic or oval scars, arranged in quincunx order, and indicating the points where the long, needle-shaped leaves were formerly attached. The fruit consisted of cones or spikes, carried at the ends of the branches, and consisting of a central axis surrounded by overlapping scales, each of which supports a "spore-case" or seed-vessel. These cones have commonly been described under the name of Lepidostrobi. In the structure of the trunk there is nothing comparable to what is found in existing trees, there being a thick bark surrounding a zone principally composed of "scalariform" vessels, this in turn enclosing a large central pith. In their general appearance the Lepidodendra bring to mind the existing Araucarian Pines; but they are true "Cryptogams," and are to be regarded as a gigantic extinct type of the Page 167 modern Club-mosses (Lycopodiaceœ). They are amongst the commonest and most characteristic of the Carboniferous Fig. 110
Fig. 110.—Lepidodendron Sternbergii, Carboniferous, Europe. The central figure represents a portion of the trunk with its branches, much reduced in size. The right-hand figure is a portion of a branch with the leaves partially attached to it; and the left-hand figure represents the end of a branch bearing a cone of fructification.
plants; and the majority of the "spore-cases" so commonly found in the coal appear to have been derived from the cones of Lepidodendroids.

Page 168 The so-called Sigillanoids, represented mainly by Sigillaria itself (fig. 111), were no less abundant and characteristic of the Carboniferous forests than the Lepidodendra. They commence their existence, so far as known, in the Devonian period, but they attain their maximum in the Carboniferous; and—unlike the Lepidodendroids—they are not known to occur in the Permian period. They are comparatively gigantic in size, often attaining a height of from thirty to fifty feet or more; but though abundant and well preserved, great divergence of opinion prevails as to their true affinities. The name of Sigillarioids (Lat. sigilla, little seals or images) is derived from the fact that the bark is marked with seal-like impressions or leaf-scars (fig. 111).

Externally, the trunks of Sigillaria present strong longitudinal ridges, with vertical alternating rows of oval leaf-scars indicating the points where the leaves were originally Fig. 111
Fig. 111.—Fragment of the external surface of Sigillaria Grœseri, showing the ribs and leaf-scars. The left-hand figure represents a small portion enlarged. Carboniferous, Europe.
attached. The trunk was furnished with a large central pith, a thick outer bark, and an intermediate woody zone,—composed, according to Dawson, partly of the disc-bearing fibres so characteristic of Conifers; but, according to Carruthers, entirely made up of the "scalariform" vessels characteristic of Cryptogams. The size of the pith was very great, and the bark seems to have been the most durable portion of the trunk. Thus we have evidence that in many cases the stumps and "stools" of Sigillariœ, standing Page 169 upright in the old Carboniferous swamps, were completely hollowed out by internal decay, till nothing but an exterior shell of bark was left. Often these hollow stumps became ultimately filled up with sediment, sometimes enclosing the remains of galley-worms, land-snails, or Amphibians, which formerly found in the cavity of the trunk a congenial home; and from the sandstone or shale now filling such trunks some of the most interesting fossils of the Coal-period have been obtained. There is little certainty as to either the leaves or fruits of Sigillaria, and there is equally little certainty as to the true botanical position of these plants. By Principal Dawson they are regarded as being probably flowering plants allied to the existing "false palms" or "Cycads," but the high authority of Mr Carruthers is to be quoted in support of the belief that they are Cryptogamic, and most nearly allied to the Club-mosses.

Leaving the botanical position of Sigillaria thus undecided, we find that it is now almost universally conceded that the fossils originally described under the name of Stigmaria are the roots of Sigillaria, the actual connection between the two having been in numerous instances demonstrated in an unmistakable manner. The Stigmariœ (fig. 112) ordinarily present themselves in the form of long, compressed or rounded Fig. 112
Fig. 112.—Stigmaria ficoides. Quarter natural size. Carboniferous.
fragments, the external surface of which is covered with rounded pits or shallow tubercles, each of which has a little pit or depression in its centre. From each of these pits there proceeds, in perfect examples, a long cylindrical rootlet; but in many cases these have altogether disappeared. In their internal structure, Stigmaria exhibits a central pith surrounded by a sheath of scalariform vessels, the whole enclosed in a cellular envelope. The Stigmariœ are generally found ramifying in Page 170 the "under-clay," which forms the floor of a bed of coal, and which represents the ancient soil upon which the Sigillariœ grew.

The Lepidodendroids and Sigillaroids, though the first were certainly, and the second possibly, Cryptogamic or flowerless plants, must have constituted the main mass of the forests of the Coal period; but we are not without evidence of the existence at the same time of genuine "trees," in the technical sense of this term—namely, flowering plants with large woody stems. So far as is certainly known, all the true trees of the Carboniferous formation were Conifers, allied to the existing Pines and Firs. They are recognised by the great size and concentric woody rings of their prostrate, rarely erect trunks, and by the presence of disc-bearing fibres in their wood, as demonstrated by the microscope; and the principal genera which have been recognised are Dadoxylon, Palœoxylon, Araucarioxylon, and Pinites. Their fruit is not known with absolute certainty, unless it be represented, as often conjectured, by Trigonocarpon (fig. 113). The fruits known under this name are nut-like, often of Fig. 113
Fig. 113.—Trigonocarpon ovatum. Coal-measures, Britain. (After Liudley and Hutton.)
considerable size, and commonly three- or six-angled. They probably originally possessed a fleshy envelope; and if truly referable to the Conifers, they would indicate that these ancient evergreens produced berries instead of cones, and thus resembled the modern Yews rather than Pines. It seems, further, that the great group of the Cycads, which are nearly allied to the Conifers, and which attained such a striking prominence in the Secondary period, probably commenced its existence during the Coal period; but these anticipatory forms are comparatively few in number, and for the most part of somewhat dubious affinities.



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