Lost continent discovered under the African island of Mauritius

Terry Joseph
February 3, 2017

Scientists have unearthed evidence of an ancient "lost continent" in the Indian Ocean - but it isn't the fabled city of Atlantis.

"We are studying the break-up process of the continents, in order to understand the geological history of the planet", said Witwatersrand geologist Lewis Ashwal.

Pieces of a lava-coated crust of the "lost continent" were discovered under the Indian Ocean of Mauritius.

The ancient microcontinent could have connected the island of Madagascar and India in the Gondwana supercontinent millions of years ago but most likely disappeared into the Indian Ocean.

To give you an idea of the kind of timelines we're working with here, a 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal found on a sheep ranch in western Australia was recently dated as the oldest piece of Earth we could find. While most of the island is younger than 9 million years, the researchers found some samples that were more than 3 billion years old.

'Our results demonstrate the existence of ancient continental crust beneath Mauritius, Professor Ashwal wrote in the study published in Nature Communications.

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A 2013 study previously found traces of billions of years old zircons in the beach sand in Mauritius, however the study was largely criticized by other scientists who suggested that the mineral could have been blown in by wind or carried in on vehicle tyres or shoes.

Known as a tropical holiday destination, Mauritius is a volcanic island, formed by the eruption of volcanoes starting at about nine million years ago.

The continent was likely part of the enormous supercontinent Gondwana, which broke up to become Antarctica, Africa, Australia and South America. Some of that land, including the zircon crystals, was recycled into the rising plume of magma that fueled the eruptions that eventually built Mauritius.

It is thought Mauritia separated from the rest of the continent around 60 million years ago. They contain traces of many long-lasting chemicals, such as lead, uranium, and thorium.

The theory is that when India and Madagascar started moving apart, Mauritia found itself being pulled both ways, stretching and growing thinner until it broke apart in chunks, which sank into the ocean. The two supercontinents briefly combined to form Pangaea before breaking up into the continents we know today. In addition to Mauritius, the researchers think pieces of Mauritia may also lie below other volcanic islands in the Indian Ocean, such as Cargados Carajos, Laccadive and the Chagos islands.

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