Photo by Alfo Medeiros

The carboniferous period is the age when the earth is covered in swamps, plants, and water-dwelling animals that left rich deposits of carbon used in the fields of Evolution, Paleontology, Geology, and Archaeology.

Thomas McLoughlin’s picture guidebook, A Guide to Pennsylvanian (Carboniferous) Age Plant Fossils of Southwest Virginia, gives a glimpse of the Carboniferous plants that once dominated the planet. The book provides systematic classifications of the Paleobotany fossil plants and some organisms from the Pennsylvanian Southwest Virginia.

The Carboniferous Period is characterized by dominant swampy terrains where different organisms thrive. This time period is nicknamed the Age of Amphibians due to the presence of swamps, shallow seas, and continental environments. This period is also known for the rich carbon deposits crucial in giving insights from the past. It is divided into two sub-periods: Pennsylvanian and Mississippian.

Here are some organisms that ruled the Carboniferous Period:



  • Hylonomus is a type of lizard that existed in the Carboniferous period, particularly in the Pennsylvanian sub-period. This lizard looks closely similar to the modern lizards. Additionally, these reptiles are also associated with clubmoss as they take shelter in stumps of fallen clubmosses or Lycophytes.


  • Temnospondyls are primitive amphibians that flourished and thrived in the environments during the Carboniferous, Permian, and Triassic periods. These were some of the first land vertebrates known to man with a life cycle that resembles today’s amphibians, starting from an egg to a tadpole to metamorphosing into adulthood. These primitive amphibians resemble alligators because of their dorsoventrally flattened skulls.


  • Anthracosaurs are eel-like amphibians, also known as embolomeres, from the Carboniferous and Early Permian periods. These stem tetrapods evolved from the Early Carboniferous, most particularly the Mississippian sub-period. These also became the largest predatory amphibians in the late Pennsylvanian sub-period.

Archosaurs – crocodiles, birds, and dinosaurs

  • Some forms of dinosaurs, crocodiles, and birds also thrived in the Carboniferous period. These are some of the largest and most ferocious predators of the time. Some of them, especially the crocodilians, have not changed so much over time and are still closely resembling today’s crocodiles and birds.



  • Sphenopsids are primitive vascular plants that thrive in wet areas; hence, the swampy Carboniferous Earth is a perfect time for these plants to dominate. These plants are characterized by needle-like branches that radiate around the stem at regular intervals, forming a whorl. The extant relative of this plant group is the horsetails.


  • Lycopsids are one of the oldest living Paleobotany plant fossils. This group consists of clubmosses, non-flowering, vascular plants characterized by branching stems and microphylls (small leaves). Lepidodendrales, a representative of this group, is an extinct tree-like plant that towered over the other life forms since trees were not yet present at the time.  


  • Pteridospermatophyta is a group of extinct seed-bearing plants thriving in the Carboniferous Period. These plants are characterized by fern-like fronds where seeds are produced.


  • Cycadales or Cycads are a group of gymnosperms from the Carboniferous period, characterized by stout and woody stem or trunk that holds a crown of large, stiff, and evergreen pinnate leaves. Cycads are still living today but are already on the brink of extinction. These plants share a close resemblance to palms but are not related. Both plants exhibit their similarities due to convergent evolution.

Plants are some of the most underrated organisms that people want to study. These organisms are crucial to the life cycles of different organisms around them, supporting the ecological structure of a habitat. Ancient plants ruled the Earth with their nourishing and safeguarding presence.

More Paleobotany fossil plants are systematically described in Thomas McLoughlin’s A Guide to Pennsylvanian (Carboniferous) Age Plant Fossils of Southwest Virginia.