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What Organisms Lived During the Miocene Epoch?

During the Miocene Epoch, a diverse array of life flourished. This era saw the rise of many modern mammals, including ancestors of elephants, horses, and primates. The oceans teemed with marine mammals like whales and seals. Even some of the earliest grassland ecosystems emerged. Curious about how these organisms shaped our planet's history? Dive deeper to uncover the secrets of the Miocene.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The Miocene epoch extends from about 23.03 to 5.33 million years ago. It is the first and longest epoch of the Neogene period. Being relatively recent in geological history, much of the Miocene flora and fauna was similar to today's, except it was somewhat more primitive near the beginning and more diverse throughout, being that human beings have quickly killed off many of the unique animals that evolved in the last 20 million years.

Since 49 million years ago, the Earth had been substantially cooling, but this phenomenon accelerated during the Miocene. At the start of the period, South America separated from Antarctica, allowing a cold Antarctic current -- the Antarctic Circumpolar Current -- to circulate around Antarctica endlessly, without any land barrier. This prevented ocean thermal mixing, causing extreme cooling in Antarctica and causing glaciation there to become continent-wide. The white ice reflected back thermal energy into space, further lowering the temperature.

A raccoon, which existed during the Miocene epoch.
A raccoon, which existed during the Miocene epoch.

Because of the relatively low temperature throughout the Miocene period, it was dominated by grasses, just like today. Therefore, the primary herbivores were those that adapted to life on the steppes, including the ancestors of horses, rhinos, and the highly successful ruminants, which were already outnumbering their competitors. Many modern animals existed as early as the start of the period, including raccoons, wolves, camels, deer, and whales. Marine mammals were somewhat less numerous than today, and whales were smaller. Dolphins evolved near the beginning of the period, along with the technique of echolocation, while porpoises evolved at its middle.

The Miocene Epoch saw the evolution of dolphins.
The Miocene Epoch saw the evolution of dolphins.

During the Miocene, South America and Australia were isolated from every other continent, developing their own unique and widely divergent fauna. South America developed an entire unique class of ungulates which evolved to fill the niches occupied by ungulates on other continents, including those corresponding to rabbits, hippos, and chalicotheres (odd large animals that walked on their knuckles). Many of these animals are now extinct, outcompeted when North America merged with South America three million years ago and introduced the latter to the mammalian fauna of the rest of the world.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon300794

When did the first zebra arrive? In what epoch?

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    • A raccoon, which existed during the Miocene epoch.
      By: Eric Isselée
      A raccoon, which existed during the Miocene epoch.
    • The Miocene Epoch saw the evolution of dolphins.
      By: IrinaNo
      The Miocene Epoch saw the evolution of dolphins.
    • The deer is one modern animal that lived during the Miocene Epoch.
      By: satori
      The deer is one modern animal that lived during the Miocene Epoch.
    • Wolves existed during the Miocene epoch.
      By: JackF
      Wolves existed during the Miocene epoch.