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DEEP TIME

A History of the Earth – Interactive Infographic

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Prokaryotes (microscopic single-celled organism) : 3500 Ma1

Eukaryotes (complex organism with a nucleus) : 2100 Ma2

Multicellular life (organisms that consist of more than one cell) : 1100 Ma3

Animals (major group of multicellular eukaryotic organisms) : 665 Ma4

Land plants (multicellular eukaryotes with reproductive organs) : 450 Ma5

Dinosaurs (major group of archosaurian reptiles) : 230 Ma6

Mammals (warm-blooded vertebrate animals) : 210 Ma7

Humans (Homo genus of bipedal primates) : 2.3 Ma8

Hadean Eon : 4.5 - 3.8 billion years (duration: 0.7 Ga / 700 Ma)9

Archean Eon : 3.8 - 2.5 billion years (duration: 1.3 Ga / 1300 Ma)10

Proterozoic Eon : 2.5 billion - 543 million years (duration: 2 Ga / 1957 Ma)11

Paleozoic Era : 542 - 251 million years (duration: 0.29 Ga / 291 Ma)12

Mesozoic Era : 251 - 65.5 million years (duration: 0.18 Ga / 185.5 Ma)13

Cenozoic Era : 65.5 million years - Today (duration: 0.06 Ga / 65 Ma)14

Moon formation (Earth collides with Theia) : 4500 Ma15

Abiogenesis (Pre-cellular life, in the form of RNA - Ribonucleic Acid) : 4100 Ma16

Photosynthesis (Sunlight used to synthesize foods from CO2 and water) : 3400 Ma17

Cyanobacteria (Prokaryotic microorganisms capable of photosynthesis) : 3000 Ma18

Oxygenation event (Rapid increase in atmospheric oxygen) : 2400 Ma19

Global Collisional Orogens (Severe structural deformation of the Earth's crust) : 1800 Ma20

Rodinia Formation (Most continental mass was united in this supercontinent) : 1000 Ma21

Snowball Earth (The planet's surface became entirely frozen) : 750 Ma22

You've been here for x 6.25 Ma

The Earth is old, very very old. It is difficult for us humans to fully comprehend just how old our planet actually is.

This infographic offers a visual way to explore the various stages of the Earth's history using a 12 hour clock analogy.

The Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old. In this analogy, one second represents 104,167 years and one hour 375 millions years.

  • 12 h = 720 mins = 43,200 seconds
  • 4,500,000,000 / 43,200 = 104,167
  • 0.5 second = 52,083 years
  • 1 second = 104,167 years
  • 1 minute = 6,250,020 / 6.25 Ma years
  • 1 hour = 375,001,200 / 375 Ma years
  • humans > 2 Ma years = 19 seconds

Life on the planet started astonishingly early. The first living organisms, in the current model of evolution, are thought to be Prokaryotes1. The oldest known fossilised prokaryotes have been dated to approximately 3.5 billion years ago, only 1 billion years after the formation of the Earth's crust.

Eukaryotes2 are more advanced organisms with complex cell structures, each of which contains a nucleus. Although incredibly hard to determine their origin, they are thought to have developed 1.6–2.1 billion years ago, although some research2 suggests eukaryotes being present even earlier than this.

Around 1.1 billion years ago multicellular3 organisms are thought to have started to develop, most likely similar in form to plants such as green algae. 200 million years later true multicellularity had also evolved in animals similar in nature to today's sponges, which are organisms which can reassemble themselves.

Animals4, in the most basic sense of the word, are considered to have evolved from Eukaryotes. Fossils of early sponges have been discovered in 665 million year old rock. Later on, around 560 million years ago, some highly significant fossils of an organism which was named Charnia4.1 were discovered. These enigmatic early animals were anchored to the sea floor where they are thought to have absorbed nutrients.

Around 450 million years ago, during the Ordovician Period, land plants appeared, although new evidence may suggest that complex photosynthetic plants developed over 1000 million years ago. Studies of fossils from the Devonian Period 416–359 Ma5.1 indicate that land plants had evolved features we recognise today, such as leaves, roots, and secondary wood. Towards the end of this time seeds had evolved.

The dominance of the Dinosaurs6 lasted for over 160 million years, from around 230 Ma, to their ultimate demise at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago. The extinction of most dinosaur species occurred during the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event6.1. The fossil record indicates that birds evolved within theropod dinosaurs during the Jurassic period. Some of them survived the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, including the ancestors of all modern birds.

The first Mammals7 are our most direct ancestors, they evolved from Amniotes7.1 which were a group of tetrapod vertebrates (four-limbed animals with backbones or spinal columns). All mammals posses the same characteristics; they are warm-blooded vertebrate animals of a class that is distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females, and (typically) the birth of live young. One of the earliest known mammals was Eozostrodon7.2 which lived during the late Triassic and the early Jurassic, about 210 million years ago.

The genus Homo gave rise to modern humans8, Homo sapiens, us. It is estimated we have been around for 2.3–2.4 million years, coinciding with the first evidence of stone tool usage. Incredibly, recent evidence from Ethiopia8 places the earliest signs of stone tool usage at before 3.39 million years ago.

Modern humans have evolved into highly intelligent beings who posses the power, and desire, to understand who we are, where we came from, and how the natural world works. We have even become ambitious enough to try and help each other to understand these amazing things through ever more advancing visual communication!

The Hadean Eon9 is named after the god Hades, which is Greek for Underworld, and generally refers to the chaotic conditions on the early Earth. At the start of the Hadean the solar system was still forming within it's accretion disc9.1 and the planet was subjected to millions of years of violent impacts known as the Late Heavy Bombardment9.2. This was a time on Earth before there were any rocks, making geological study of this eon very difficult. The oldest dated material from this time were crystals formed from zircon.

Around 3.8 billion years ago the Earth entered the Archaen Eon10. During this time the Earth's crust cooled and rocks and continental plates began to form. 300 million years-in the Earth's magnetic field was established, protecting the early planet from intense solar winds capable of stripping away any atmosphere which existed. Fossils of stromatolites, which were instrumental in creating the free oxygen in the atmosphere are found throughout the Archean, becoming especially common late in the eon.

The Proterozoic Eon11 is the largest classified time period extending 2 billion years. The name Proterozoic is Greek for earlier life. We have a much better geologic record of this time as many of the rocks are less metamorphosed than from the Archaen Eon. The first-known glaciations occurred during the Proterozoic, one began shortly after the beginning of the eon, while there were at least four during the Neoproterozoic, climaxing with the Snowball Earth of the Varangian glaciation.

The current Eon in the geologic timescale is the Phanerozoic covering roughly the last 545 million years. Here, this infographic splits into 3 Eras, the first of which is the Paleozoic Era12. During this time the Earth's landmass was broken up into a substantial number of relatively small continents. Towards the end of the era, around 251 million years ago, sophisticated reptiles and the first modern plants had developed. The continents gathered together into a supercontinent called Pangaea, which included most of the Earth's land area.

The Mesozoic Era13 is the second period during the Phanerozoic Eon and extended from 251–65 million years ago. This was the Age of Dinosuars6 but also a time of intense tectonic, climatic, and evolutionary activity. The gradual drift of the continents towards their present positions resulted in the end of the supercontinent Pangaea. The climate was exceptionally warm throughout the period; this also played an important role in the evolution and diversification of new animal species. By the end of the era, the basis of modern life was in place.

The Cenozoic Era14 is the current and most recent of the three Phanerozoic geological eras and covers the period from 65.5 million years ago to the present. It is marked by the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event14.1 at the end of the Cretaceous that saw the demise of the last non-avian dinosaurs and the end of the Mesozoic Era. The Cenozoic Era is ongoing.

Of the several theories on how the moon was formed15, the prevailing idea today is the Giant Impact Hypothesis15.1. It is thought that the Earth–Moon system formed as a result of a giant impact with a body known as Theia, a Mars-sized planet that collided with the nearly formed proto-Earth, blasting material into orbit, which accreted to form the Moon. The large amount of energy released in the giant impact event and the subsequent re-accretion of material in Earth orbit would have melted the outer shell of the Earth, forming a magma ocean. The newly formed Moon would also have had its own lunar magma ocean.

The origin of life is still one of the biggest scientific mysteries. All known life forms share fundamental molecular mechanisms, and based on these observations, theories on the origin of life attempt to find a mechanism explaining the formation of a primordial single cell organism from which all life originates16. The RNA world hypothesis16.1 suggests that in the 'primordial soup' of organic molecules there existed free-floating nucleotides. These nucleotides regularly formed bonds with one another, producing chains which are proposed as the first, primitive forms of life and the precursor to DNA, the building blocks of complex life.

Photosynthesis17 is the chemical process that converts carbon dioxide into organic compounds, especially sugars, using the energy from sunlight. It is vital for all aerobic life on Earth. The first photosynthetic organisms probably evolved around 3400 million years ago, extremely early in the evolutionary history of life, when all forms of life on Earth were microorganisms and the atmosphere had much more carbon dioxide.

Cyanobacteria is also known as blue-green algae, blue-green bacteria, and Cyanophyta18. It is a phylum of bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis. The name 'cyanobacteria' comes from the colour of the bacteria. Cyanobacteria appeared, around 3000 million years ago, and drastically changed the Earth when they began to oxygenate the atmosphere, beginning about 2400 Ma ago.

The Great Oxygenation Event19, also called the oxygen catastrophe, was the appearance of free oxygen (O2) in Earth's atmosphere. This major environmental change happened around 2.4 billion years ago. The rising oxygen levels may have wiped out a huge portion of the Earth's anaerobic inhabitants at the time. From their perspective it was a catastrophe. Cyanobacteria, by producing oxygen, were essentially responsible for what was likely the largest extinction event in Earth's history.

Orogeny refers to forces and events leading to a severe structural deformation of the Earth's crust due to the engagement of tectonic plates20. Response to such engagement results in the formation of long tracts of highly deformed rock called orogens or orogenic belts. It is the primary mechanism by which mountains are built on continents. Global-scale collisional orogens20.1 occurred between 1800–2000 million years ago, forming Columbia20.2, one of our planet's oldest supercontinents which contained almost all of Earth's continental blocks.

The supercontinent Rodinia21 existed between 1100 and 750 million years ago, in the Neoproterozoic era. It formed around 1000 Ma by accretion and collision of fragments produced by breakup of the older supercontinent, Columbia. Rodinia broke up in the Neoproterozoic and its continental fragments were re-assembled to form another supercontinent, called Pangaea, 300–250 million years ago. In contrast with Pangaea, little is known yet about the exact configuration and geodynamic history of Rodinia.

The Snowball Earth hypothesis22 posits that the Earth's surface became entirely or nearly entirely frozen at least once, some time earlier than 650 million years ago. The sudden multiplication of life forms on Earth, known as the Cambrian explosion22.1 may have been kickstarted by the most recent snowball episode, triggering the evolution of multi-cellular life. Another, much earlier and longer, snowball episode, the Huronian glaciation, which occurred 2400–2100 Ma may have been triggered by the oxygen catastrophe.

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  • If viewing on an iPad, hold in portrait mode.

Clock

  • The clock displays your local time.
  • Midnight represents the start of the planet, 4.5 billion years ago.
  • Midday represents today, the year .
  • The coloured segments show the major eons and eras.
  • Each dot on the inner-face represents 500 million / 0.5 billion years

Life

  • Listed here are eight major groups of life which have led to the evolution of all living creatures.
  • Hovering over an item will wind-back a marker to the point in time where that type of life arose.
  • Each marker helps to visualise the expanse of time the life groups have been in existence.
  • Clicking an item will highlight related info.

Events

  • Listed here are eight significant events which have occurred during the vast expanse of time the planet Earth has existed.
  • Hovering over an item will show a visual icon marker.
  • Clicking an item will highlight related info.

Eons

  • Listed here are six of the major eons and eras.
  • Hovering over these will highlight a segment.
  • Clicking an item will highlight related info.

Visit Time

  • This will incrementally show the time you have been here in relation to the analogy, so each minute translates to 6.25 million years.
  • If you hover over the value, you will see a marker wind-on to allow to you visually see the time you have been on the page.

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References

  • If you would like to discover more about any of the items featured in this infographic, you can follow links to related wikipedia articles.
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