VI. The Age of Reptiles
THE ABUNDANT life of the Carboniferous period was succeeded by a vast cycle of dry and bitter ages. They are represented in the Record of the Rocks by thick deposits of sandstones and the like, in which fossils are comparatively few. The temperature of the world fluctuated widely, and there were long periods of glacial cold. Over great areas the former profusion of swamp vegetation ceased, and, overlaid by these newer deposits, it began that process of compression and mineralization that gave the world most of the coal deposits of to-day.
But it is during periods of change that life undergoes its most rapid modifications, and under hardship that it learns its hardest lessons. As conditions revert towards warmth and moisture again we find a new series of animal and plant forms established. We find in the record the remains of vertebrated animals that laid eggs which, instead of hatching out tadpoles which needed to live for a time in water, carried on their development before hatching to a stage so nearly like the adult form that the young could live in air from the first moment of independent existence. Gills had been cut out altogether, and the gill slits only appeared as an embryonic phase.
These new creatures without a tadpole stage were the Reptiles. Concurrently there had been a development of seed-bearing trees, which could spread their seed, independently of swamp or lakes. There were now palmlike cycads and many tropical conifers, though as yet there were no flowering plants and no grasses. There was a great number of ferns. And there was now also an increased variety of insects. There were beetles, though bees and butterflies had yet to come. But all the fundamental forms of a new real land fauna and flora had been laid down during these vast ages of severity. This new land life needed only the opportunity of favourable conditions to flourish and prevail.
Age by age and with abundant fluctuations that mitigation came. The still incalculable movements of the earth's crust, the changes in its orbit, the increase and diminution of the mutual inclination of orbit and pole, worked together to produce a great spell of widely diffused warm conditions. The period lasted altogether, it is now supposed, upwards of two hundred million years. It is called the Mesozoic period, to distinguish it from the altogether vaster Palaeozoic and Azoic periods (together fourteen hundred millions) that preceded it, and from the Cainozoic or new life period that intervened between its close and the present time, and it is also called the Age of Reptiles because of the astonishing predominance and variety of this form of life. It came to an end some eighty million years ago.
In the world to-day the genera of Reptiles are comparatively few and their distribution is very limited. They are more various, it is true, than are the few surviving members of the order of the amphibia which once in the Carboniferous period ruled the world. We still have the snakes, the turtles and tortoises (the Chelonia), the alligators and crocodiles, and the lizards. Without exception they are creatures requiring warmth all the year round; they cannot stand exposure to cold, and it is probable that all the reptilian beings of the Mesozoic suffered under the same limitation. It was a hothouse fauna, living amidst a hothouse flora. It endured no frosts. But the world had at least attained a real dry land fauna and flora as distinguished from the mud and swamp fauna and flora of the previous heyday of life upon earth.
All the sorts of reptile we know now were much more abundantly represented then, great turtles and tortoises, big crocodiles and many lizards and snakes, but in addition there was a number of series of wonderful creatures that have now vanished altogether from the earth. There was a vast variety of beings called the Dinosaurs. Vegetation was now spreading over the lower levels of the world, reeds, brakes of fern and the like; and browsing upon this abundance came a multitude of herbivorous reptiles, which increased in size as the Mesozoic period rose to its climax. Some of these beasts exceeded in size any other land animals that have ever lived; they were as large as whales. The Diplodocus Carnegii for example measured eighty-four feet from snout to tail; the Gigantosaurus was even greater; it measured a hundred feet. Living upon these monsters was a swarm of carnivorous Dinosaurs of a corresponding size. One of these, the Tyrannosaurus, is figured and described in many books as the last word in reptilian frightfulness.
While these great creatures pastured and pursued amidst the fronds and evergreens of the Mesozoic jungles, another now vanished tribe of reptiles, with a bat-like development of the fore limbs, pursued insects and one another, first leapt and parachuted and presently flew amidst the fronds and branches of the forest trees. These were the Pterodactyls. These were the first flying creatures with backbones; they mark a new achievement in the growing powers of vertebrated life.
Moreover some of the reptiles were returning to the sea waters. Three groups of big swimming beings had invaded the sea from which their ancestors had come: the Mososaurs, the Plesiosaurs, and Ichthyosaurs. Some of these again approached the proportions of our present whales. The Ichthyosaurs seem to have been quite seagoing creatures, but the Plesiosaurs were a type of animal that has no cognate form to-day. The body was stout and big with paddles, adapted either for swimming or crawling through marshes, or along the bottom of shallow waters. The comparatively small head was poised on a vast snake of neck, altogether outdoing the neck of the swan. Either the Plesiosaur swam and searched for food under the water and fed as the swan will do, or it lurked under water and snatched at passing fish or beast.