The Silurian is a geologic period and system spanning 24.6 million years from the end of the Ordovician Period, at 443.8 million years ago (Mya), to the beginning of the Devonian Period, 419.2 Mya. The Silurian is the shortest period of the Paleozoic Era. As with other geologic periods, the rock beds that define the period's start and end are well identified, but the exact dates are uncertain by a few million years. The base of the Silurian is set at a series of major Ordovician¥Silurian extinction events when up to 60% of marine genera were wiped out.
The French geologist Joachim Barrande, building on Murchison's work, used the term Silurian in a more comprehensive sense than was justified by subsequent knowledge. He divided the Silurian rocks of Bohemia into eight stages.His interpretation was questioned in 1854 by Edward Forbes, and the later stages of Barrande; F, G and H have since been shown to be Devonian. Despite these modifications in the original groupings of the strata, it is recognized that Barrande established Bohemia as a classic ground for the study of the earliest Silurian fossils.
With the supercontinent Gondwana covering the equator and much of the southern hemisphere, a large ocean occupied most of the northern half of the globe. The high sea levels of the Silurian and the relatively flat land (with few significant mountain belts) resulted in a number of island chains, and thus a rich diversity of environmental settings.
When the proto-Europe collided with North America, the collision folded coastal sediments that had been accumulating since the Cambrian off the east coast of North America and the west coast of Europe. This event is the Caledonian orogeny, a spate of mountain building that stretched from New York State through conjoined Europe and Greenland to Norway. At the end of the Silurian, sea levels dropped again, leaving telltale basins of evaporites extending from Michigan to West Virginia, and the new mountain ranges were rapidly eroded. The Teays River, flowing into the shallow mid-continental sea, eroded Ordovician Period strata, forming deposits of Silurian strata in northern Ohio and Indiana.
The Silurian period enjoyed relatively stable and warm temperatures, in contrast with the extreme glaciations of the Ordovician before it, and the extreme heat of the ensuing Devonian. Sea levels rose from their Hirnantian low throughout the first half of the Silurian; they subsequently fell throughout the rest of the period, although smaller scale patterns are superimposed on this general trend; fifteen high-stands (periods when sea levels were above the edge of the continental shelf) can be identified, and the highest Silurian sea level was probably around 140 m higher than the lowest level reached.
The climate and carbon cycle appear to be rather unsettled during the Silurian, which had a higher concentration of isotopic excursions than any other period. The Ireviken event, Mulde event and Lau event each represent isotopic excursions following a minor mass extinction and associated with rapid sea-level change, in addition to the larger extinction at the end of the Silurian. Each one leaves a similar signature in the geological record, both geochemically and biologically; pelagic (free-swimming) organisms were particularly hard hit, as were brachiopods, corals and trilobites, and extinctions rarely occur in a rapid series of fast bursts.
The first fossil records of vascular plants, that is, land plants with tissues that carry water and food, appeared in the second half of the Silurian period. The earliest-known representatives of this group are Cooksonia. Most of the sediments containing Cooksonia are marine in nature. Preferred habitats were likely along rivers and streams. Baragwanathia appears to be almost as old, dating to the early Ludlow (420 million years) and has branching stems and needle-like leaves of 10–20 cm. The plant shows a high degree of development in relation to the age of its fossil remains. Fossils of this plant have been recorded in Australia, Canada and China. Eohostimella heathana is an early, probably terrestrial, "plant" known from compression fossils[23] of early Silurian (Llandovery) age. The chemistry of its fossils is similar to that of fossilised vascular plants, rather than algae.