The Cretaceousâ€“Tertiary extinction event, which occurred approximately 65.5 million years ago (Ma), was a large-scale mass extinction of animal and plant species in a geologically short period of time. Widely known as the Kâ€“T extinction event, it is associated with a geological signature known as the Kâ€“T boundary, usually a thin band of sedimentation found in various parts of the world. K is the traditional abbreviation for the Cretaceous Period derived from the German name Kreidezeit, and T is the abbreviation for the Tertiary Period (a historical term for the period of time now covered by the Paleogene and Neogene periods). The event marks the end of the Mesozoic Era and the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. With "Tertiary" being discouraged as a formal time or rock unit by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the Kâ€“T event is now called the Cretaceousâ€“Paleogene (or Kâ€“Pg) extinction event by many researchers.
Non-avian dinosaur fossils are only found below the Kâ€“T boundary, indicating that non-avian dinosaurs became extinct immediately before, or during the event. A very small number of dinosaur fossils have been found above the Kâ€“T boundary, but they have been explained as reworked, that is, fossils that have been eroded from their original locations then preserved in later sedimentary layers. Mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and many species of plants and invertebrates also became extinct. Mammalian and bird clades passed through the boundary with few extinctions, and evolutionary radiation from those Maastrichtian clades occurred well past the boundary. Rates of extinction and radiation varied across different clades of organisms.
Scientists theorize that the Kâ€“T extinctions were caused by one or more catastrophic events, such as massive asteroid impacts (like the Chicxulub impact), or increased volcanic activity. Several impact craters and massive volcanic activity, such as that in the Deccan traps, have been dated to the approximate time of the extinction event. These geological events may have reduced sunlight and hindered photosynthesis, leading to a massive disruption in Earth's ecology. Other researchers believe the extinction was more gradual, resulting from slower changes in sea level or climate.
Artist's rendering of bolide impact.
Badlands near Drumheller, Alberta, where erosion has exposed the Kâ€“T boundary
A Wyoming (USA) rock with an intermediate claystone layer that contains 1000 times more iridium than the upper and lower layers. Picture taken at the San Diego Natural History Museum