The fossil record of diatoms has largely been established through the recovery of their siliceous frustules in marine and non-marine sediments. Although diatoms have both a marine and non-marine stratigraphic record, diatom biostratigraphy, which is based on time-constrained evolutionary originations and extinctions of unique taxa, is only well developed and widely applicable in marine systems. The duration of diatom species ranges have been documented through the study of ocean cores and rock sequences exposed on land. Where diatom biozones are well established and calibrated to the geomagnetic polarity time scale (e.g., Southern Ocean, North Pacific, eastern equatorial Pacific), diatom-based age estimates may be resolved to within <100,000 years, although typical age resolution for Cenozoic diatom assemblages is several hundred thousand years.
The Cretaceous record of diatoms is limited, but recent studies reveal a progressive diversification of diatom types. The Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, which in the oceans dramatically affected organisms with calcareous skeletons, appears to have had relatively little impact on diatom evolution.
Although no mass extinctions of marine diatoms have been observed during the Cenozoic, times of relatively rapid evolutionary turnover in marine diatom assemblages occurred near the Paleocene–Eocene boundary and at the Eocene–Oligocene boundary. Further turnover of assemblages took place at various times between the middle Miocene and late Pliocene, in response to progressive cooling of polar regions and the development of more endemic diatom assemblages. A global trend toward more delicate diatom frustules has been noted from the Oligocene to the Quaternary. This coincides with an increasingly more vigorous circulation of the ocean’s surface and deep waters brought about by increasing latitudinal thermal gradients at the onset of major ice sheet expansion on Antarctica and progressive cooling through the Neogene and Quaternary towards a bipolar glaciated world. This drove the diatoms into uptaking silica more competitively (i.e., to use less silica in formation of their frustules). Increased mixing of the oceans renews silica and other nutrients necessary for diatom growth in surface waters, especially in regions of coastal and oceanic upwelling.
On January 10, 2013, mathematician Chandra Wickramasinghe reported in the fringe science Journal of Cosmology, of shapes resembling fossil diatom frustules in a carbonaceous meteorite that landed in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka on 29 December 2012.
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