The Ordovician Period
The Ordovician Period lasted almost 45 million years, beginning 488.3 million years ago and ending 443.7 million years ago.* During this period, the area north of the tropics was almost entirely ocean, and most of the world's land was collected into the southern supercontinent Gondwana. Throughout the Ordovician, Gondwana shifted towards the South Pole and much of it was submerged underwater.
The Ordovician is best known for its diverse marine invertebrates, including graptolites, trilobites, brachiopods, and the conodonts (early vertebrates). A typical marine community consisted of these animals, plus red and green algae, primitive fish, cephalopods, corals, crinoids, and gastropods. More recently, tetrahedral spores that are similar to those of primitive land plants have been found, suggesting that plants invaded the land at this time.
From the Lower to Middle Ordovician, the Earth experienced a milder climate the weather was warm and the atmosphere contained a lot of moisture. However, when Gondwana finally settled on the South Pole during the Upper Ordovician, massive glaciers formed, causing shallow seas to drain and sea levels to drop. This likely caused the mass extinctions that characterize the end of the Ordovician in which 60% of all marine invertebrate genera and 25% of all families went extinct.
Ordovician strata are characterized by numerous and diverse trilobites and conodonts (phosphatic fossils with a tooth-like appearance) found in sequences of shale, limestone, dolostone, and sandstone. In addition, blastoids, bryozoans, corals, crinoids, as well as many kinds of brachiopods, snails, clams, and cephalopods appeared for the first time in the geologic record in tropical Ordovician environments. Remains of ostracoderms (jawless, armored fish) from Ordovician rocks comprise some of the oldest vertebrate fossils.
Despite the appearance of coral fossils during this time, reef ecosystems continued to be dominated by algae and sponges, and in some cases by bryozoans. However, there apparently were also periods of complete reef collapse due to global disturbances.
The major global patterns of life underwent tremendous change during the Ordovician. Shallow seas covering much of Gondwana became breeding grounds for new forms of trilobites. Many species of graptolites went extinct by the close of the period, but the first planktonic graptolites appeared.
In the late Lower Ordovician, the diversity of conodonts decreased in the North Atlantic Realm, but new lineages appeared in other regions. Seven major conodont lineages went extinct, but were replaced by nine new lineages that resulted from a major evolutionary radiation. These lineages included many new and morphologically different taxa. Sea level transgression persisted causing the drowning of almost the entire Gondwana craton. By this time, conodonts had reached their peak development.
Although fragments of vertebrate bone and even some soft-bodied vertebrate relatives are now known from the Cambrian, the Ordovician is marked by the appearance of the oldest complete vertebrate fossils. These were jawless, armored fish informally called ostracoderms, but more correctly placed in the taxon Pteraspidomorphi. Typical Ordovician fish had large bony shields on the head, small, rod-shaped or platelike scales covering the tail, and a slitlike mouth at the anterior end of the animal. Such fossils come from nearshore marine strata of Ordovician age in Australia, South America, and western North America.
Perhaps the most "groundbreaking" occurrence of the Ordovician was the colonization of the land. Remains of early terrestrial arthropods are known from this time, as are microfossils of the cells, cuticle, and spores of early land plants.
The Ordovician was named by the British geologist Charles Lapworth in 1879. He took the name from an ancient Celtic tribe, the Ordovices, renowned for its resistance to Roman domination. For decades, the epochs and series of the Ordovician each had a type location in Britain, where their characteristic faunas could be found, but in recent years, the stratigraphy of the Ordovician has been completely reworked. Graptolites, extinct planktonic organisms, have been and still are used to correlate Ordovician strata.
Particularly good examples of Ordovician sequences are found in China (Yangtze Gorge area, Hubei Province), Western Australia (Emanuel Formation, Canning Basin), Argentina (La Chilca Formation, San Juan Province), the United States (Bear River Range, Utah), and Canada (Survey Peak Formation, Alberta). Ordovician rocks over much of these areas are typified by a considerable thickness of lime and other carbonate rocks that accumulated in shallow subtidal and intertidal environments. Quartzites are also present. Rocks formed from sediments deposited on the margins of Ordovician shelves are commonly dark, organic-rich mudstones which bear the remains of graptolites and may have thin seams of iron sulfide.
Tectonics and paleoclimate
During the Ordovician, most of the world's land southern Europe, Africa, South America, Antarctica, and Australia was collected together in the super-continent Gondwana. Throughout the Ordovician, Gondwana moved towards the South Pole where it finally came to rest by the end of the period. In the Lower Ordovician, North America roughly straddled the equator and almost all of that continent lay underwater. By the Middle Ordovician North America had shed its seas and a tectonic highland, roughly corresponding to the later Appalachian Mountains, formed along the eastern margin of the continent. Also at this time, western and central Europe were separated and located in the southern tropics; Europe shifted towards North America from higher to lower latitudes.
During the Middle Ordovician, uplifts took place in most of the areas that had been under shallow shelf seas. These uplifts are seen as the precursor to glaciation. Also during the Middle Ordovician, latitudinal plate motions appear to have taken place, including the northward drift of the Baltoscandian Plate (northern Europe). Increased sea floor spreading accompanied by volcanic activity occurred in the early Middle Ordovician. Ocean currents changed as a result of lateral continental plate motions causing the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. Sea levels underwent regression and transgression globally. Because of sea level transgression, flooding of the Gondwana craton occurred as well as regional drowning which caused carbonate sedimentation to stop.
During the Upper Ordovician, a major glaciation centered in Africa occurred resulting in a severe drop in sea level which drained nearly all craton platforms. This glaciation contributed to ecological disruption and mass extinctions. Nearly all conodonts disappeared in the North Atlantic Realm while only certain lineages became extinct in the Midcontinental Realm. Some trilobites, echinoderms, brachiopods, bryozoans, graptolites, and chitinozoans also became extinct. The Atlantic Ocean closed as Europe moved towards North America. Climatic fluctuations were extreme as glaciation continued and became more extensive. Cold climates with floating marine ice developed as the maximum glaciation was reached.
Canning Basin, Australia: A great diversity of fossil gastropods has been uncovered in the Canning Basin.
Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: The limestones of this region have preserved many spectactular fossils of Ordovician macroalgae.
* Dates from the International Commission on Stratigraphy's International Stratigraphic Chart, 2009.
Page content written and completed by Christina Avildsen, Jennifer Bie, Chirag Patel, and Brie Sarvis as part of a Biology 1B project for Section 115 under Brian R. Speer, 5/11/1998; Sarah Rieboldt updated the pages to reflect the Geological Society of America (GSA) 1999 Geologic Timescale, 11/2002; Dave Smith recombined the content into a single page, adapted it to the new site format and made some content updates, 7/6/2011; image of Ordovician sea life courtesy of William B.N. Berry