The division between Pennsylvanian and Mississippian comes from North American stratigraphy. In North America, where the early Carboniferous beds are primarily marine limestones, the Pennsylvanian was in the past treated as a full-fledged geologic period between the Mississippian and the Permian. In Europe, the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian are one more-or-less continuous sequence of lowland continental deposits and are grouped together as the Carboniferous Period. The current internationally used geologic timescale of the ICS gives the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian the rank of subperiods, subdivisions of the Carboniferous Period.
Generalized geographic map of the United States in middle Pennsylvanian time.
All modern classes of fungi have been found in rocks of Pennsylvanian age.
Amphibians were diverse and common; some were several meters long as adults. The collapse of the rainforest ecology in the mid-Pennsylvanian (between the Moscovian and the Kasimovian) removed many amphibian species that did not survive as well in the cooler, drier conditions. Reptiles, however, prospered due to specific key adaptations. One of the greatest evolutionary innovations of the Carboniferous was the amniote egg, which allowed for the further exploitation of the land by certain tetrapods. These included the earliest sauropsid reptiles (Hylonomus), and the earliest known synapsid (Archaeothyris). Small lizard-like animals quickly gave rise to many descendants. Reptiles underwent a major evolutionary radiation, in response to the drier climate that followed the rainforest collapse.
The major forms of life at this time were the arthropods. Due to the high levels of oxygen, arthropods were far larger than modern ones. Arthropleura, a giant millipede relative, was a common sight and the giant dragonfly Meganeura "flew the skies".
The Pennsylvanian has been variously subdivided. The international timescale of the ICS follows the Russian subdivision into four stages:
The Virgilian or Conemaugh corresponds to the Gzhelian plus the uppermost Kasimovian.
The Missourian or Monongahela corresponds to the rest of the Kasimovian.
The Desmoinesian or Allegheny corresponds to the upper half of the Moscovian.
The Atokan or upper Pottsville corresponds to the lower half of the Moscovian.
The Morrowan corresponds to the Bashkirian.
In the European subdivision, the Carboniferous is divided into two epochs: Dinantian (early) and Silesian (late). The Silesian starts earlier than the Pennsylvanian and is divided in three ages: