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The Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale consists of two subsystems, six series and seven stages. Precise numerical age control within the Carboniferous is uneven, and a global magnetic polarity timescale for the Carboniferous is far from established. Isotope stratigraphy based on Sr, C and O isotopes is at an early stage but has already identified a few Sr and C isotope events of use to global correlation. Cyclostratigraphy has created a workable astrochronology for part of Pennsylvanian time that needs better calibration. Chronostratigraphic definitions of most of the seven Carboniferous stages remain unfinished. Future research on the Carboniferous timescale should focus on Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) selection for the remaining, undefined stage bases, definition and characterization of substages, and further development and integration of the Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale with radioisotopic, magnetostratigraphic, chemostratigraphic and cyclostratigraphic tools for calibration and correlation, and the cross-correlation of non-marine and marine chronologies.

Today, the Subcommission on Carboniferous Stratigraphy (SCCS), part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (IUGS), advocates a Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale of two subsystems, six series and seven stages (Fig. 1) (Heckel and Clayton 2006). The boundaries of the Carboniferous System and the bases of three of its seven stages are defined by global stratotype sections and points (GSSPs). The numerical ages of most of these boundaries appear to have been determined with a precision of about 0.3–0.4 myr, but precise numerical age control within the Carboniferous is generally sparse and uneven (Aretz et al. 2020). A global polarity timescale for the Carboniferous is being developed and is not yet complete. Isotope stratigraphy based on Sr, C and O isotopes is under development but has already identified some Sr and C isotope events of use to global correlation. Cyclostratigraphy has created an astrochronology for at least part of Pennsylvanian time that still needs better calibration. Chronostratigraphic definitions of most of the substages used by some workers to subdivide the Carboniferous stages remain unfinished. For the non-marine Carboniferous strata, correlations based on palynomorphs, megafossil plants, conchostracans, insects, bivalves and tetrapods (amphibians and reptiles) have been proposed, but many problems of correlation remain, especially the cross-correlation of Carboniferous non-marine and marine chronologies.

Fig. 1.

The Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale showing ratified GSSPs of stage bases.

Fig. 1.

The Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale showing ratified GSSPs of stage bases.

This Special Publication reviews the state of the art of the Carboniferous timescale, and this introductory chapter provides an overview of this volume. It also presents the current Carboniferous timescale of the SCCS (Figs 1 & 2).

Fig. 2.

Carboniferous timescale (after Aretz et al. 2020).

Fig. 2.

Carboniferous timescale (after Aretz et al. 2020).

It is important to understand that the Carboniferous timescale is constrained in different ways by the disparate conditions of the Carboniferous Earth during the Mississippian and the Pennsylvanian (Figs 3,, 4,, 5). During the Mississippian, Pangaea had not yet fully assembled, so that a Rheic Ocean separated Gondwana from the Laurussian supercontinent (Fig. 4). Glaciers were limited, so the Mississippian was generally a time of global greenhouse climates with a relative dearth of volcanism. The marine biota, able to travel the shelves of the supercontinents via the Rheic Ocean, was relatively cosmopolitan, which results in far-reaching correlations using marine biostratigraphy. However, numerical ages from Mississippian volcanic rocks are relatively few, and little cyclostratigraphy is available to develop an astrochronology. Nevertheless, the magnetic field was active during the Mississippian, which resulted in a relatively well-understood magnetostratigraphy. Thus, Mississippian chronostratigraphy based on marine biostratigraphy is relatively robust and non-provincial, and finds good support from magnetostratigraphy but little support from numerical ages and cyclostratigraphy.

Fig. 3.

Major biotic and nonbiotic events of the Carboniferous. D/C, Devonian–Carboniferous; FAD, first appearance datum.

Fig. 3.

Major biotic and nonbiotic events of the Carboniferous. D/C, Devonian–Carboniferous; FAD, first appearance datum.

Fig. 4.

Mississippian palaeogeography. © 2016 Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc. Used by licence.

Fig. 4.

Mississippian palaeogeography. © 2016 Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc. Used by licence.

Fig. 5.

Pennsylvanian palaeogeography. © 2016 Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc. Used by licence.

Fig. 5.

Pennsylvanian palaeogeography. © 2016 Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc. Used by licence.

The Pennsylvanian amalgamation of Pangaea closed the Rheic Ocean (Fig. 5). The result was provincialization of the marine biota, which decreases the ability to effect biostratigraphic correlations of broad scope. The tectonics of the amalgamation produced much volcanism, particularly in the megasutural zone between the supercontinents, so that more numerical ages are available for Pennsylvanian time than are available for the Mississippian. However, the magnetic field activity was much reduced, when the almost totally reversed polarity Kiaman superchron effectively eliminated a Pennsylvanian magnetostratigraphy. The Pennsylvanian world, however, was a time of great glacial events, so that cyclostratigraphic data to produce an astrochronology are available in the Pangaean tropics for much of the subsystem.

Thus, in viewing the Carboniferous timescale, it is fair to say that the global chronostratigraphy is much stronger for the Mississippian than for the Pennsylvanian, when correlations between provinces (particularly between Euramerica, Gondwana and Angara) are challenging. The non-biostratigraphic constraints also differ between the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian, so that numerical and other chronological constraints are better developed for the Pennsylvanian.

During the Mississippian, ammonoids, foraminifers, conodonts, corals, brachiopods and echinoderms are important biostratigraphic guides. In many successions, these marine fossils are abundant and allow the finest subdivision. With a major regression at the end of the Mississippian, the abundance and frequency of marine groups decreases, even though conodonts and foraminiferans remain very important. Fossil plants are useful for Mississippian biostratigraphy, but in the Pennsylvanian their proliferation and abundance provide a remarkable stratigraphic tool for terrestrial sequences. Terrestrial invertebrates (especially conchostracans and insects) and tetrapods (footprints and bones) are also very important for Pennsylvanian non-marine biostratigraphy.

The Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale is a hierarchy of two subsystems, six series and seven stages developed over nearly two centuries of research since Conybeare and Phillips (1822) first used the term Carboniferous as a chronostratigraphic construct (Fig. 1). Lucas et al. (2021a)  review the nearly two-century-long development of the Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale. Carboniferous stage nomenclature developed with the proposal of numerous regional stages/substages based primarily on palaeobotanical, foraminiferal and ammonoid biostratigraphy, especially in western Europe, the former Soviet Union, China and the USA. From the regional stages, seven ‘global stages’ have been identified (in ascending order): Tournaisian, Visean, Serpukhovian, Bashkirian, Moscovian, Kasimovian and Gzhelian. Three of the four ratified GSSPs relevant to the Carboniferous chronostratigraphy use conodont evolutionary events as the primary signal for correlation – the bases of the Tournaisian and Bashkirian and the base of the Asselian. The GSSP of the Visean base has a foraminiferal event as its primary signal. Issues in the development of a Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale include the rank of chronostratigraphic units, provinciality, conodont biostratigraphy, palaeobotanical biostratigraphy, and the development of astrochronology and other methods of chronology and correlation (Lucas 2021a).

Ratified GSSPs define boundaries of three of the seven Carboniferous stages recognized by the SPS, and also define the boundaries of the two Carboniferous subsystems and of the Carboniferous System (Fig. 1). The bases of most of the Carboniferous substages (Fig. 6) lack formal definition. They provide a more refined subdivision of Carboniferous time than do the stages and should be the focus of much future chronostratigraphic research.

Fig. 6.

Carboniferous regional substages.

Fig. 6.

Carboniferous regional substages.

One of the most detailed schemes of Carboniferous chronostratigraphy is that developed in the former Soviet Union (Fig. 6). Alekseev et al. (2021)  review this scheme by presenting the Carboniferous stratigraphy and chronostratigraphy officially adopted in regions of the Russian Federation. These regions include the Moscow Basin/the Urals, North Timan, Siberia, Taimyr, the Kuznetsk Basin, the Mongolo-Okhotsk Region, Omolon and the Verkhoyansk–Kolyma Region, and encompass different geological histories and distinct depositional settings. Broad correlations based on macro- and microfossils are possible between these regions, and all of the regional schemes are correlated to the official Russian General Stratigraphic scheme for the Carboniferous using zonations based on index fossils. The Russian General Stratigraphic scheme is correlated to the International Stratigraphic Scale based on ammonoids, conodonts, foraminiferans and palynomorphs. It has provided most of the standard stages of the Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale (Fig. 1).

Perhaps more than any interval of the Phanerozoic (except for the late Cenozoic), the provincialization of the Carboniferous (especially Pennsylvanian) biota hinders global biostratigraphic correlations and the development of a single, globally applicable chronostratigraphy. This problem is especially evident in parts of Gondwana. González and Díaz Saravia (2021)  review the Carboniferous and earliest Permian rocks in the western Andean belt of Argentina, which contain a record so extensive that it allows a detailed reconstruction of the history of the late Paleozoic ice ages along the southwestern margin of South American Gondwana. Severe endemism of the Gondwana biota during this time interval makes it difficult to achieve a precise correlation of these glacially influenced deposits with coeval strata of the palaeoequatorial belt, where the global Carboniferous chronostratigraphy is currently defined (also see González 2005). Based on the abundant palaeontological record of the upper Paleozoic deposits of central-western Argentina, central Patagonia and eastern Argentina, González and Díaz Saravia (2021)  propose five successive regional stages: Malimanian (late Tournaisian), Barrealian (mid-Carboniferous or Serpukhovian–Bashkirian), Aguanegrian (Late Pennsylvanian), Uspallatian (Asselian–Tastubian?) and Bonetian (Sakmarian).

Aretz et al. (2020) recently presented a Carboniferous numerical timescale based on the constraints provided by 47 radioisotopic ages to which they assigned a 0.4 myr uncertainty. By adding Permian numerical ages to the analysis, a total of 84 high-resolution U/Pb ages are available, with the majority having an uncertainty of 0.3–0.4 myr. This dataset is based mainly on GTS2012, Davydov et al. (2010, 2012), Schmitz and Davydov (2012) and Pointon et al. (2012, 2014, 2018, 2019), as well as on Jirásek et al. (2013, 2018). Numerical age constraints are weakest for the Mississippian stages, Tournaisian and Visean, which are the longest Carboniferous stages. Exceptions are the radioisotopic ages from the Central European Variscides presented by Pointon et al. in a series of articles from 2012 to 2019 (see above).

With the increased tectonism during the final closure of the Rheic Ocean by continent–continent collision, volcanism increased considerably, so the chance of finding ash beds suitable for dating augmented. The dataset presented by Aretz et al. (2020) presents representative ages for marine Carboniferous deposits. Further radioisotopic ages from mixed marine–continental (paralic) and pure continental deposits in relation to marine–non-marine biostratigraphic correlations are discussed in detail by Schneider et al. (2020) and in this volume. A wealth of radioisotopic ages of non-marine Carboniferous deposits has recently been produced for the Czech basins as a standard for central Europe by the team of Opluštil et al. (2016a, b) and in this volume. A summary of non-marine–marine correlations based on biostratigraphy and radioisotopic ages, as well as on magnetostratigraphy, for the Pennsylvanian and Permian of Euramerica, including the Russian Platform and the Karoo Basin of Gondwana, is shown here in Figure 7 (an improved version of fig. 2 in Schneider et al. 2020).

Fig. 7.

Multistratigraphic correlations of the basins discussed by Schneider et al. (2020). Positions of the radioisotopic ages are indicated by stars. For the data used for the correlations, the dating methods, error ranges of the radioisotopic ages and for discussion, see the contributions by Schneider et al. (2020, 2021). Marine deposits are marked in blue. Abbreviations: NA, North American regional scale; WE, West European regional scale; Miss., Missourian; Road., Roadian; Gr., Griesbachian; Di., Dienerian; Sm., Smithian; Sp., Spathian; Cant., Cantabrian; Graiss., Graissessac; Cgl., conglomerate; Kreuzn., Kreuznach.

Fig. 7.

Multistratigraphic correlations of the basins discussed by Schneider et al. (2020). Positions of the radioisotopic ages are indicated by stars. For the data used for the correlations, the dating methods, error ranges of the radioisotopic ages and for discussion, see the contributions by Schneider et al. (2020, 2021). Marine deposits are marked in blue. Abbreviations: NA, North American regional scale; WE, West European regional scale; Miss., Missourian; Road., Roadian; Gr., Griesbachian; Di., Dienerian; Sm., Smithian; Sp., Spathian; Cant., Cantabrian; Graiss., Graissessac; Cgl., conglomerate; Kreuzn., Kreuznach.

The global polarity timescale for rocks of Late Jurassic, Cretaceous and Cenozoic age provides a valuable tool for evaluating and refining correlations that are based primarily on radioisotopic ages or biostratigraphy. Carboniferous magnetostratigraphy has long been thought to consist of a mixed polarity interval of Tournaisian–Bashkirian age, followed by the Kiaman Reversed Polarity Superchron, which lasted from the mid-Bashkirian through the early part of the middle Permian (about 50 myr). However, there is no agreed geomagnetic polarity timescale for the Carboniferous.

Hounslow (2021)  notes that the geomagnetic polarity pattern for the Carboniferous is incompletely known and best resolved in the Serpukhovian and Bashkirian. In the Tournaisian–mid-Visean, interval polarity is mainly derived from palaeopole-type palaeomagnetic studies, allowing the identification of polarity-bias chrons. Seven polarity bias chrons exist in the Mississippian (MI1nB–MI4nB), with an additional 33 conventional magnetochrons and submagnetochrons (MI4r–MI9r). The Kiaman Superchron begins in the mid-Bashkirian, with data indicating some brief normal polarity submagnetochrons within the Superchron. The Moscovian and Gzhelian polarity is best resolved in magnetostratigraphic studies from the Donets Basin and the southern Urals. An assessment of supporting data from palaeopole-type studies suggests that the Ukrainian/Russian datasets currently provide the best magnetic polarity data through the Pennsylvanian. Polarity bias assessment indicates a normal polarity bias zone in the Kasimovian. In the Pennsylvanian there are 27 conventional magnetochrons and submagnetochrons (PE1n–CI1r) and one normal polarity bias chron (PE8nB).

The use of strontium, carbon and oxygen isotopes in stratigraphic correlation (‘chemostratigraphy’) has grown dramatically during the last decade. We note that isotope curves that plot the composition of an element or changes in the ratio of isotopes of an element have the potential to provide a means of correlation essentially independent of other methods. However, like magnetostratigraphy, this record needs calibration to a datum or to datums, either biostratigraphic or radioisotopic.

Chen et al. (2021)  present an updated set of Carboniferous Sr, C and O isotope stratigraphies based on the existing literature. The Carboniferous 87Sr/86Sr record, constructed using brachiopods and conodonts, identifies five phases beginning with a rapid decline from a peak value of c. 0.70840 at the Devonian–Carboniferous boundary to a trough (0.70776–0.70771) in the Visean followed by a rise to a plateau (c. 0.70827) in the upper Bashkirian. A decline to c. 0.70804 extends from the earliest Gzhelian to the end of the Carboniferous.

Contemporaneous carbonate δ13C records show considerable variability between the materials analysed and between regions, although a few pronounced excursions (e.g. a mid-Tournaisian positive excursion and an end-Kasimovian negative excursion) can be identified in most records. Bulk carbonate δ13C records from Europe and South China are generally consistent with those of brachiopod calcite from North America in terms of both absolute values and trends.

Both brachiopod calcite and conodont phosphate δ18O have a large regional variability, so that Carboniferous δ18O records cannot be used for precise stratigraphic correlation. Nevertheless, significant positive δ18O shifts during some intervals (the mid-Tournaisian and the Mississippian–Pennsylvanian transition) can be used for broad, global correlation.

The late Paleozoic ice ages began during the Late Devonian and continued into the early Permian, and were the longest-lived (c. 370–260 Ma) and possibly most extensive of the icehouse periods of the Phanerozoic. Montañez (2021)  notes that mid- to high-latitude glaciogenic deposits of the Carboniferous record a complex and dynamic history, with ice waxing and waning from multiple ice centres, and transcontinental ice sheets possibly present during the apex of glaciation. New high-precision U–Pb ages confirm a previously hypothesized west to east progression of glaciation during the late Paleozoic icehouse and indicate that its demise occurred as a series of synchronous and widespread deglaciations. The glaciation history of the Carboniferous is also archived by far-field effects (primarily sea-level changes) in the low-latitude stratigraphic record, similar to the Cenozoic icehouse. However, further evaluation of the phasing between climatic, oceanographic and biotic changes during the icehouse requires additional chronostratigraphic constraints.

The far-field effects of the late Paleozoic ice ages allow constructions of a ‘floating’ astrochronology for much of the Pennsylvanian (Hinnov and Ogg 2007). This astrochronology provides a high temporal resolution of part of the late Paleozoic record, well demonstrated in both deep- and quiet-water deposits (e.g. Heckel 2013). Nevertheless, rigorous testing of astronomical forcing in low-latitude cyclothemic successions, which have a direct link to higher-latitude glaciogenic records through inferred glacioeustasy, will require a comprehensive approach that integrates new techniques with additional independent age constraints.

The distribution of fossils in marine strata (biostratigraphy) has long provided the primary basis for construction of the Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale. The most important taxa in this regard are non-fusulinid foraminifers, fusulines, ammonoids and conodonts. Brachiopods and rugose corals have also provided important biostratigraphy of Carboniferous marine strata. These groups are reviewed by articles in this volume, as are the biostratigraphic utility of Carboniferous crinoids and marine bivalves.

Non-fusuline foraminiferans are abundant in many Carboniferous marine strata, and some taxa have very broad distributions in shallow-marine carbonate facies. This has led to the use of non-fusuline foraminiferans in Carboniferous biostratigraphy, especially in Europe, North America and Asia. Indeed, one of the few ratified Carboniferous GSSPs, the base of the Visean, has a non-fusuline foraminiferan biotic event as its primary signal (Devuyst et al. 2003; Richards and Aretz 2009).

Vachard and Le Coze (2021)  review the biostratigraphy of Carboniferous smaller foraminifers, which include representatives of the classes Fusulinata, Miliolata and Nodosariata. The main biostratigraphic markers belong to the superfamilies Archaediscoidea, Lasiodiscoidea and Bradyinoidea, and secondary biostratigraphic markers belong to Lituotubelloidea (=‘Tournayelloidea’), Endothyroidea and Loeblichioidea (the latter gave rise to the primitive Fusulinida). The Miliolata appeared during the Visean–Serpukhovian boundary interval, and the typical Carboniferous miliolates are primitive nubeculariins and cornuspirinins. Tubiphytids might be miliolate and cyanobacterium consortia, derived from the nubeculariin Palaeonubecularia. The most primitive nodosariates (syzraniids) appeared in the Moscovian, and in the latest Carboniferous they gave rise to the Protonodosaria, Nodosinelloides, and possibly Polarisella, Paravervilleina and the oldest Geinitzinoidea. Palaeobiogeographical distributions of Pojarkovella, Janischewskina, Eosigmoilina, Brenckleina, Spireitlina, Hemigordius and Syzrania document successive Carboniferous foraminiferal migrations between the Palaeotethys, Ural and Panthalassan oceans.

Fusuline foraminiferans have long played an important role in Pennsylvanian biostratigraphy and chronostratigraphic definitions (e.g. Douglass 1977). Indeed, the very first published fusuline-based correlation was between Carboniferous fusulines in Russia and the USA (Verneuil 1846). In general, Pennsylvanian fusuline genera are of global distribution, whereas the species are restricted to Pennsylvanian provinces, so that fusuline correlations vary in detail and precision.

Ueno (2021)  reviews Carboniferous fusuline biostratigraphy by presenting a synthesis of the taxonomy, phylogeny, palaeogeographical distribution, regional biostratigraphy and palaeobiogeography. The Carboniferous fusulines are assigned to the families Ozawainellidae, Staffellidae, Schubertellidae, Fusulinidae and Schwagerinidae, of which 95 genera are considered taxonomically valid. Fusulines appeared in the latest Tournaisian, and during the Mississippian they were of small size and morphologically conservative.

During the Pennsylvanian, fusulines became larger and more diversified to become abundant in many Pennsylvanian microfossil assemblages. Ueno (2021)  reviews regional fusuline successions in 39 provinces, which provide a refined biostratigraphy that enables zonation and correlation with substage- or higher-resolution precision in the Pennsylvanian. Fusulines had a cosmopolitan palaeobiogeographical distribution in Mississippian time, suggesting unrestricted faunal exchange through the palaeoequatorial Rheic Ocean. However, during the Pennsylvanian, after the formation of Pangaea, fusulines started to show provincialism. Their distributions define the Ural–Arctic region in the Boreal realm, the Paleotethys, Panthalassa and North American Craton regions in the Palaeoequatorial realm, and the Western Gondwana and the Eastern Peri-Gondwana regions in the Gondwana realm.

Brachiopoda is a phylum of marine animals with two valves known from more than 12 000 fossil species in more than 5000 genera. Brachiopods were common shelly benthos during the Carboniferous, mostly as seafloor filter feeders.

In their review of Carboniferous brachiopod biostratigraphy, Angiolini et al. (2021)  stress how difficult it is to establish a biochronological scheme for global correlation based on brachiopods because of provincialism and endemism. However, numerous new brachiopod assemblages have been described during the last 40 years, making it possible to improve and update the brachiopod biostratigraphy in different regions.

Thus, Angiolini et al. (2021)  evaluate the biostratigraphic significance of the most important brachiopod taxa to present correlations in seven geographical regions. The Mississippian is characterized by rich brachiopod faunas that include widespread taxa with a good potential for global correlation, such as Antiquatonia, Buxtonia, Delepinea, Fluctuaria, Lamellosathyris, Marginatia, Ovatia, Rhipidomella, Rugosochonetes, Spinocarinifera, Syringothyris, Tylothyris and Unispirifer. From the mid-Visean to the late Serpukhovian, taxa of gigantoproductidines are biostratigraphically significant, and are present everywhere except South America and Australia, which remain as distinct faunal provinces for most of the Carboniferous. A major turnover in brachiopods took place at the beginning of the Pennsylvanian, and ushered in a higher degree of provincialism. Pennsylvanian brachiopod faunas are diverse in China, Russia and North America, but elsewhere they are less developed and are characterized mostly by endemic taxa, which hampers long-distance correlation. An exception is the rapid diversification of taxa of the Choristitinae, which were widespread from the Bashkirian to the Moscovian, allowing long-distance correlation.

During the Carboniferous, crinoids were common and often so locally abundant that their skeletal ossicles formed limestones termed encrinites. Ausich et al. (2021) , in their review of the Carboniferous record of crinoids, note that both the Mississippian and the Pennsylvanian started with high rates of crinoid evolution and ended with low evolutionary rates associated with glaciation. Paleozoic crinoid biodiversity reached its maximum during the Carboniferous, from which there are numerous well-documented localities with high biodiversity. According to Ausich et al. (2021) , crown-based crinoid genera can be employed as biostratigraphic indicators of Carboniferous stages. For Mississippian crinoids, 37 genera are designated as biostratigraphically useful; and for the Pennsylvanian, 44 genera are thus identified. Recognition of the utility of these genera for biostratigraphy is important for dating crinoidal deposits, which may be devoid of other biostratigraphically useful fossils, and this adds to our overall ability to resolve Carboniferous marine biostratigraphy and correlation.

Rugose corals were one of the major fossil groups in shallow-marine Carboniferous environments, and have long played an important role in the subdivision and correlation of Carboniferous strata. Thus, during the last century, biostratigraphic schemes were established, and extensive taxonomic works on rugose corals have been undertaken. Wang et al. (2021)  review the Carboniferous record of rugose corals to clarify their composition and biostratigraphy.

This review documents two major evolutionary events in the Carboniferous rugose corals: (1) after the Devonian extinctions, the Tournaisian recovery event, with abundant records of typical Carboniferous rugose corals such as columellate taxa and a significant diversification of large, dissepimented corals; and (2) the changeover of rugose coral composition at the mid-Carboniferous boundary, which encompassed the disappearance of large dissepimented taxa with complex axial structures and the appearance of typical Pennsylvanian compound rugose taxa, the Petalaxidae, Geyerophyllidae and Waagenophyllida. The Mississippian successions of rugose corals have higher temporal resolution than the Pennsylvanian ones, which is likely to be due to the late Paleozoic ice ages that resulted in the lack of continuous Pennsylvanian strata in many regions, especially in Europe and North America. Rugose corals are totally missing in the Pennsylvanian of Gondwana. To achieve a high-resolution biostratigraphy of rugose corals, more detailed taxonomic work and precise correlations between different fossil groups are needed: for example, correlative studies that more closely link the biostratigraphy of foraminifers to that of rugose corals.

The bivalves were, like the brachiopods, common denizens of Carboniferous seafloors. However, they have only been used in a limited fashion in Carboniferous biostratigraphy. Amler and Silantiev (2021)  summarize research on the biostratigraphic application of Carboniferous marine bivalves worldwide. The role of marine bivalves in Carboniferous stratigraphy, with a focus on the South Laurussian margin and the Palaeotethys, is outlined. Although marine bivalves have not received primary attention for biostratigraphic purposes, a wealth of data exists nearly worldwide to complement the more favoured brachiopod, foraminiferan, ammonoid and conodont biozonations.

Pelagic, open-marine bivalves with a basin-wide distribution are well suited for biostratigraphy, whereas inner-shelf or nearshore groups are mostly rather restricted to specific facies types (substrates). According to Amler and Silantiev (2021) , based on the current fossil record, the vertical distribution of marine bivalves in pelagic facies in the western Palaeotethys provides useful biostratigraphy from the Middle Famennian (Hembergian Stage) to the Early Tournaisian (Balvian = Gattendorfian Stage) and from the Visean (Aprathian = Goniatites Stage) to the Serpukhovian (Pendleian–Arnsbergian = Eumorphoceras Stage). The Middle and Late Tournaisian (Erdbachian = Pericyclus Stage) are generally poor in bivalve fossils.

Ammonoids have long been important to Carboniferous marine biostratigraphy, and Nikolaeva (2021)  reviews the application of ammonoids to Carboniferous chronostratigraphy. Considerable progress has been made in refining the traditional ammonoid zonation that has been a cornerstone of Carboniferous biostratigraphy and chronostratigraphy. Thus, refined collecting and documentation of occurrences in western Europe, North Africa, the Urals, China and North America have established the first evolutionary occurrences of many ammonoid taxa, and facilitated their correlation with foraminiferal and conodont biostratigraphic scales for most of the Carboniferous.

The Carboniferous ammonoid genozones, with a few gaps, are now recognized throughout the entire system in most successions worldwide. Thus, from 10 to 11 ammonoid genozones are now identified in the Mississippian, and eight to nine genozones are recognized in the Pennsylvanian. Based on these, the lower boundaries of the Carboniferous subsystems are reasonably well correlated with the ammonoid zonation, whereas correlations with the ratified foraminiferan-based lower boundary of the Visean and other stage boundaries need additional research. Future success in the application of ammonoids to Carboniferous biostratigraphy and chronostratigraphy will also depend on accurate identification and re-illustration of the type material of many taxa, including material described by the pioneers of Carboniferous ammonoid biostratigraphy.

Conodonts are microscopic, tooth-like structures composed of calcium phosphate that are abundant and widespread in Carboniferous marine strata. Although the biological source of conodonts was long unknown, they are now clearly associated with chordates. In the 1980s, conodonts began to be used for defining Carboniferous chronostratigraphic boundaries (e.g. Paproth et al. 1980). Thus, the GSSPs of three stages (bases of the Tournaisian, Bashkirian and Asselian) relevant to the Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale have conodont biotoic events as primary signals, and it is likely that the other Carboniferous stage bases awaiting GSSP definition will also use conodont events as their primary correlation signals (Aretz et al. 2020; but see Lucas 2021a for a critique of the use of conodonts in Carboniferous GSSP definitions).

Barrick et al. (2021)  review the state of the art of Carboniferous conodont biostratigraphy, which consists of regional zonations that reflect the palaeogeographical distribution of taxa and distinct shallow- and deep-water conodont biofacies. Nevertheless, some species have a global distribution and can be used in high-resolution correlations. These taxa are incorporated into definitions of global Carboniferous chronostratigraphic units, but a standard global Carboniferous zonation has not been achieved.

The lowermost Mississippian is zoned by Siphonodella species, except in shallow-water facies where other polygnathids are used. Gnathodus species diversified during the Tournaisian and are used to define many Mississippian zones. A late Tournaisian maximum in diversity, characterized by short-lived genera, was followed by lower-diversity faunas of Gnathodus species and carminate genera through the Visean and Serpukhovian. By the late Visean and Serpukhovian, species of Lochriea provide the best biostratigraphic resolution, and shallow-water zonations based on Cavusgnathus and Mestognathus species are difficult to correlate.

An extinction event near the base of the Pennsylvanian was followed by the appearance of the new gnathodid genera Declinognathodus, Idiognathodus, Idiognathoides, Neognathodus and Rhachistognathus. By the middle of the Moscovian, a few genera remained, namely Idiognathodus, Neognathodus and Swadelina. During the middle Kasimovian and Gzhelian, only Idiognathodus and Streptognathodus species were common. Near the end of the Gzhelian, a rediversification of Streptognathodus species extended into the Cisuralian.

Ginter (2021)  notes that among the groups of marine fishes that existed during the Carboniferous, the Chondrichthyes appear to have the greatest biostratigraphic potential because most taxa are readily identified by isolated teeth, which can be locally abundant. However, despite the long history of study of Paleozoic sharks, and especially their teeth, our knowledge of their usefulness in biostratigraphy and palaeoecology is still at an early stage of development. This is mainly because palaeoichthyologists have long focused on descriptions of individual taxa, and not on the documentation of whole assemblages. According to Ginter (2021) , the microscopic teeth of pelagic stem-group Chondrichthyes, such as Thrinacodus (Phoebodontiformes), Denaea and Stethacanthulus (Falcatidae, Symmoriiformes) appear to be more useful than macrofossils (e.g. tooth plates of Holocephali) because of their wider geographical distribution and lesser facies dependence.

However, Ginter's (2021) review fails to recognize some important Carboniferous selachian assemblages that are directly associated with fusulinid and/or conodont age control. A good example is the Kinney Brick Quarry in New Mexico, USA, which has a diverse chondrichthyan fossil assemblage (Hodnett and Lucas 2021; Hodnett et al. 2021), and direct age control as early Missourian (Kasimovian) based on fusulinids and conodonts (Lucas et al. 2011; Rosscoe and Barrick 2021). Such assemblages are necessary to form the backbone of a useful Carboniferous chondrichthyan biostratigraphy.

Non-marine Carboniferous biostratigraphy has also been developed, based primarily on palynomorphs, megafossil plants, conchostracans and insects, and tetrapod (amphibian and reptile) footprints and body fossils. Particularly significant is the role that megafossil plants have played in Carboniferous biostratigraphy and chronostratigraphy. Studies of the fossil floras of the ‘coal forests’ began in Europe in the early 1800s and soon thereafter in North America (e.g. von Schlotheim 1804; Brongniart 1821; Sternberg 1821). Extensive palaeobotanical biostratigraphic schemes developed, and many important Carboniferous chronostratigraphic constructs, such as Namurian, Westphalian and Stephanian, are rooted in palaeobotanical biostratigraphy.

Spores and pollen are the microscopic reproductive structures of vascular plants. Their organic walls resist pressure, desiccation and microbial decomposition, so they are often well preserved in sedimentary rocks, and Carboniferous strata are no exception. Because of their abundance (one plant may produce thousands of palynomorphs), durability and easy dispersal (often by wind), palynomorphs are found in both non-marine and marine strata. Thereby, they provide an important means for cross-correlation of non-marine and marine strata based on shared palynomorph taxa. However, most palynomorphs are only dispersed within a few kilometres or less of the plant that produced them, and any provincialization of the palaeoflora hinders their use in broad-scale correlation. Furthermore, plants are very environmentally sensitive, so palaeoenvironmental and facies restrictions of extinct plants can affect the distribution of their palynomorphs.

Eble (2021)  presents a summary of palynological data for Pennsylvanian-age coal beds in the Appalachian Basin of the eastern USA, discussed primarily from a biostratigraphic perspective. Coal-bed palynofloras of Early Pennsylvanian–early Permian age are compared and correlated with miospore assemblage zones long established in western Europe (e.g. Clayton et al. 1977). Coal beds in the Appalachian Basin are Early–Late Pennsylvanian in age, with some early Permian coals located in the northern part of the basin. Palynological analyses of these coals provide evidence of Pennsylvanian wetland palynofloras changing in composition through time. In addition, the occurrence and range of selected palynotaxa allow comparison and correlation with miospore assemblage zonations developed for coal-forming basins in the interior region of the USA, and also with western Europe.

As noted above, megafossil plants have been part of Carboniferous chronostratigraphy and biostratigraphy back to the seminal European works on the flora of the ‘coal forests’ of the early 1800s. This is a flora dominated by primitive conifers, lycopsids, peltasperms, true ferns, sphenopsids and cordaites.

Following the terrestrialization of the global biota that began during the Devonian (Isozaki and Servais 2017), the Carboniferous terrestrial vegetation became widespread, diverse and abundant. According to the review by Opluštil et al. (2021) , the resulting fossil record has proved to be an effective biostratigraphic tool for intra- and interbasinal correlations in the palaeoequatorial Euramerican province that extended from the current locations of the North American Midcontinent basin to the Variscan basins of the Czech Republic. In addition to palaeogeography, Carboniferous plant biostratigraphy is strongly affected by a transition from greenhouse conditions during most of the Mississippian to an icehouse climate in the Pennsylvanian.

The Mississippian climate resulted in weak provincialism, with a cosmopolitan flora ranging from the tropics to middle latitudes. The global cooling around the Mississippian–Pennsylvanian boundary enhanced development of a latitudinal climatic zonation and related floral provincialism. These changes are expressed in the recognition of distinct realms or kingdoms, by which the tropical Amerosinian Realm (or Euramerican and Cathaysian realms) is surrounded by the Angaran and Gondwanan realms occupying middle–high latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres, respectively (Fig. 5). Floristic endemism in the Pennsylvanian thus precludes development of a global macrofloral biostratigraphy. Instead, each realm or area has its own biostratigraphic scheme. The less rich and less diverse floras of the Gondwanan and Angaran realms only support relatively low-resolution macrofloral biostratigraphy. Higher-resolution macrofloral zonations exist only in the tropical Amerosinian Realm due to diverse and abundant floras dominated by free-sporing and early seed plants that lived in extensive wetlands.

Conchostracans are bivalved crustaceans that have lived in freshwater lakes and ponds for the last few hundred million years. Their minute, drought-resistant eggs can be dispersed by winds, and this guaranteed a broad geographical range to some conchostracan taxa across much of Carboniferous Pangaea. Their habitats ranged from perennial lakes to seasonal playa lakes and temporary ponds and puddles, where they could form mass death assemblages. This, together with relatively high speciation rates, make them ideal guide fossils, especially in otherwise fossil-poor wet and dry red beds. However, the taxonomy of conchostracans has long been oversplit, and vast taxonomic revisions are needed to realize fully their biostratigraphic potential (e.g. Scholze and Schneider 2015; Schneider and Scholze 2018).

Mississippian occurrences of fossil insects are very rare and not of biostratigraphic value. The oldest known winged insect is DelitzschalaBrauckmann and Schneider (1996) from the Upper Mississippian (upper Serpukhovian, Arnsbergian) of Germany. The entomofauna of Guandacol, Argentina, also has winged insects (Petrulevičius and Gutiérrez 2016) and apparently is a bit younger but not well dated. The advanced evolutionary stage of these oldest known winged insects indicates a much earlier origin, in the Devonian. Insects gain biostratigraphic importance through the sudden and widespread appearance of cockroachoids (order Blattodea) during the Early Pennsylvanian (middle Bashkirian), to become common in continental, mixed continental–marine and also in marine deposits (e.g. Schneider 1983; Ricetti et al. 2018; Belahmira et al. 2019; Trümper et al. 2020).

Schneider et al. (2021)  present a biostratigraphy based on conchostracans and insects of mixed continental–marine and purely non-marine sections in the palaeotropical belt of the Euramerican biotic province. They recognize nine insect and eight conchostracan zones that are either newly defined or improved. These zones encompass the time interval from the Early Pennsylvanian (middle Bashkirian) into the early Permian (early Asselian). They are linked to the marine Standard Global Chronostratigraphic Scale by common occurrences of insects and/or conchostracans with conodonts in mixed marine–continental sections, as well as by available and reliable radioisotopic ages of associated volcanic rocks and ash beds. This insect and conchostracan zonation is an alternative tool to the well-established megafossil plant biostratigraphy of the Pennsylvanian. In contrast to the latter, only single specimens of insects or conchostracans allow biostratigraphic ages to be established with a similar high temporal resolution.

Non-marine bivalves are locally common in Carboniferous strata, but they have only seen limited use in Carboniferous biostratigraphy. Amler and Silantiev (2021)  summarize research on the biostratigraphic application of Carboniferous non-marine bivalves worldwide.

Non-marine bivalves were of biostratigraphic interest in the early decades of stratigraphic research, in Europe, Asia and North America (i.e. mostly Laurussia and Siberia/Angara), because a comparatively large amount of material was collected due to coal mining during the nineteenth century. They thus received much attention in the paralic biofacies – the change from fully marine faunas to somewhat obscure brackish to limnic faunal assemblages, sometimes accompanied by plants – and experienced a wide range of biostratigraphic studies leading to a zonation based on their assemblages that received constant refinement (e.g. Paproth et al. 1983).

Nevertheless, non-marine bivalves have a problematic taxonomy due to a general lack of morphological characters and a very wide range of variation. Mostly relatively small and thin shelled, their shell surface is predominantly smooth or has only weakly developed ornamentation. The range of variation in shape of the Carboniferous non-marine bivalves is comparable to that of Recent limnic bivalves, and this is controlled by subtle differences in substrate type, water depth, habitat type, and wave and current intensity, but also by soft-body anatomy, sexual dimorphism or duration of the breeding period. Amler and Silantiev (2021)  conclude that after a century of diverse research on Pennsylvanian non-marine bivalves, the concepts used for species and genus definition are completely inadequate from a biological–systematic point. Furthermore, because of recurrent convergent evolution in the non-marine bivalves, taxonomic identifications depend on the stratigraphic framework provided by marine horizons, particularly in the Pennsylvanian in northwestern Europe.

Fossil footprints of Carboniferous tetrapods, studied since the early 1800s, are common in some Carboniferous non-marine strata and had very broad palaeogeographical distributions. Furthermore, some Carboniferous non-marine strata that lack or nearly lack a tetrapod bone record have an extensive footprint record. Therefore, various workers have used Carboniferous tetrapod footprints in biostratigraphy.

Lucas et al. (2021b)  review the Carboniferous record of tetrapod footprints, which is mostly of Euramerican origin. Particularly significant is the Carboniferous tetrapod footprint record of the Maritimes Basin of eastern Canada (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island), which encompasses well-dated and stratigraphically superposed footprint assemblages of Early Mississippian–early Permian age. A global footprint biostratigraphy and biochronology of Carboniferous time identifies four tetrapod-footprint biochrons: (1) stem-tetrapod biochron of Middle Devonian–early Tournaisian age; (2) Hylopus biochron of middle Tournaisian–early Bashkirian age; (3) NotalacertaDromopus interval biochron of early Bashkirian–Kasimovian age; and (4) Dromopus biochron of Kasimovian–early Permian age. The Carboniferous tetrapod footprint record provides these important biostratigraphic datums: (1) oldest temnospondyls (middle Tournaisian); (2) oldest reptiliomorphs, likely to be anthracosaurs (middle Tournaisian); (3) oldest amniotes (early Bashkirian); and (4) oldest high-fibre herbivores (Bashkirian). Carboniferous tetrapod footprints thus provide significant insight into some major events of the Carboniferous evolution of tetrapods, but only provide very coarse resolution for biostratigraphic and biochronological studies.

Carboniferous tetrapod body fossils have not generally been used in non-marine biostratigraphy, and Lucas (2021b)  presents a Carboniferous, tetrapod-based biochronology. Tetrapod fossils of Carboniferous age are known almost exclusively from the southern part of a palaeoequatorial Euramerican province, and their stratigraphic distribution is used to identify five land-vertebrate faunachrons: (1) Hortonbluffian (Givetian–early Visean), the time between the first appearance datum (FAD) of tetrapods to the beginning of the Doran; (2) Doran (late Visean–early Bashkirian), the time between the FAD of the baphetid Loxomma and the beginning of the Nyranyan; (3) Nyranyan (late Bashkirian–Moscovian), the time between the FAD of the eureptile Hylonomus and the beginning of the Cobrean; (4) Cobrean (Kasimovian–late Gzhelian), the time between the FAD of the eupelycosaur Ianthasaurus and the beginning of the Coyotean; and (5) Coyotean (late Gzhelian–early Permian), the time between the FAD of the eupelycosaur Sphenacodon and the beginning of the Seymouran.

This biochronology provides insight into some important evolutionary events in Carboniferous tetrapod evolution: (1) no data support tetrapod mass extinctions across the Devonian–Carboniferous boundary; (2) Romer's gap was mostly an artefact of the available fossil sample that is being filled by discovery and by description of already known fossils; (3) the almost total restriction of Carboniferous tetrapod fossils to southern Euramerica is certainly in part due to a lack of sampling outside of that region but in part reflects the taphonomic megabias introduced by coal mining in what was equatorial Euramerica and the late Paleozoic ice ages, which are likely to have made the poleward regions (especially much of Gondwana) uninhabitable for tetrapods during substantial intervals of Carboniferous time; (4) the oldest definite reptile body fossils (and footprints) are of Nyranyan age, and this has remained a remarkably stable biostratigraphic datum for more than a century; (5) an important increase in diversity of tetrapods is the Nyranyan diversification event, a turning point in Carboniferous tetrapod evolution; (6) there were important changes in the tetrapod biota during the Middle–Late Pennsylvanian transition, part of the ‘Kasimovian revolution’; and (7) the Coyotean chronofauna is a long-lasting succession of tetrapod body-fossil assemblages dominated by lepospondyl and temnospondyl amphibians, diadectomorphs, seymouriamorphs, and amniotes (notably eupelycosaurs) that appeared during the Late Pennsylvanian and persisted through much of the early Permian.

The Carboniferous timescale presented here (Fig. 2) is that of the SCCS, well reflected by many of the chapters in this Special Publication. Issues in the further development of a Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale include those of stability and priority of nomenclature and concepts, disagreements over changing taxonomy, ammonoid v. fusulinid v. conodont biostratigraphy, differences in the perceived significance of biotic events for chronostratigraphic classification, and correlation problems between provinces. Further development of the Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale should focus on GSSP selection for the remaining, undefined stage bases, definition and characterization of substages, and further integration of the chronostratigraphic scale with radioisotopic, magnetostratigraphic, chemostratigraphic and cyclostratigraphic tools for calibration and correlation. The Carboniferous was a time of increased continentality, in part because of low sea levels during the late Paleozoic ice ages. Therefore, the correlation of Carboniferous marine sections to the widespread non-marine deposits is one of the most challenging tasks of the future.

This volume was largely written, edited and reviewed during the COVID pandemic of 2020–21. We thank all the contributors to this volume for their perspicacity and patience. We also thank the reviewers for their comments on this manuscript.

SGL: conceptualization (lead), resources (lead), visualization (lead), writing – original draft (lead), writing – review & editing (lead); JWS: resources (supporting), writing – original draft (supporting), writing – review & editing (supporting); SN: resources (supporting), visualization (supporting), writing – original draft (supporting), writing – review & editing (supporting); XW: resources (supporting), visualization (supporting), writing – original draft (supporting), writing – review & editing (supporting).

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no datasets were generated or analysed during the current study.

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Figures & Tables

Fig. 1.

The Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale showing ratified GSSPs of stage bases.

Fig. 1.

The Carboniferous chronostratigraphic scale showing ratified GSSPs of stage bases.

Fig. 2.

Carboniferous timescale (after Aretz et al. 2020).

Fig. 2.

Carboniferous timescale (after Aretz et al. 2020).

Fig. 3.

Major biotic and nonbiotic events of the Carboniferous. D/C, Devonian–Carboniferous; FAD, first appearance datum.

Fig. 3.

Major biotic and nonbiotic events of the Carboniferous. D/C, Devonian–Carboniferous; FAD, first appearance datum.

Fig. 4.

Mississippian palaeogeography. © 2016 Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc. Used by licence.

Fig. 4.

Mississippian palaeogeography. © 2016 Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc. Used by licence.

Fig. 5.

Pennsylvanian palaeogeography. © 2016 Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc. Used by licence.

Fig. 5.

Pennsylvanian palaeogeography. © 2016 Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc. Used by licence.

Fig. 6.

Carboniferous regional substages.

Fig. 6.

Carboniferous regional substages.

Fig. 7.

Multistratigraphic correlations of the basins discussed by Schneider et al. (2020). Positions of the radioisotopic ages are indicated by stars. For the data used for the correlations, the dating methods, error ranges of the radioisotopic ages and for discussion, see the contributions by Schneider et al. (2020, 2021). Marine deposits are marked in blue. Abbreviations: NA, North American regional scale; WE, West European regional scale; Miss., Missourian; Road., Roadian; Gr., Griesbachian; Di., Dienerian; Sm., Smithian; Sp., Spathian; Cant., Cantabrian; Graiss., Graissessac; Cgl., conglomerate; Kreuzn., Kreuznach.

Fig. 7.

Multistratigraphic correlations of the basins discussed by Schneider et al. (2020). Positions of the radioisotopic ages are indicated by stars. For the data used for the correlations, the dating methods, error ranges of the radioisotopic ages and for discussion, see the contributions by Schneider et al. (2020, 2021). Marine deposits are marked in blue. Abbreviations: NA, North American regional scale; WE, West European regional scale; Miss., Missourian; Road., Roadian; Gr., Griesbachian; Di., Dienerian; Sm., Smithian; Sp., Spathian; Cant., Cantabrian; Graiss., Graissessac; Cgl., conglomerate; Kreuzn., Kreuznach.

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