National Geographic Daily News
A sonar image of the underwater land masses.
A sonar image shows the newfound deep-sea plateaus.

Photograph courtesy Joanne Whittaker

Richard A. Lovett

for National Geographic News

Published November 21, 2011

Giant, sunken pieces of an ancient continent from the time of the dinosaurs may have been discovered deep in the Indian Ocean, scientists say.

The two fragments, called microcontinents, are possibly leftovers from when India, Antarctica, and Australia were part of a supercontinent known as Gondwana (see a map of Earth during this time.)

The plateaus, the combined size of West Virginia, have long been known to cartographers as the Batavia Seamount and the Gulden Draak—or Golden Dragon.

But not much else was known about the features, other than their location, about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) west of Perth, Australia (map).

Surprising Deep-Sea Island Discovery

To fill in the gaps, an international team of scientists recently mapped the seabed and dredged samples from as deep as 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). (Read more about underwater exploration.)

What the scientists found surprised them. Rather than the normal basalt rock of most seabeds, the scientists pulled up chunks of granite, gneiss, and sandstone—rocks normally found on continents. (See pictures of different types of rock.)

Some samples even contained fossils, said team member Joanne Whittaker, a marine geophysicist at the University of Sydney in Australia.

"It's quite clear that these two plateaus are little fragments of Gondwana left behind as India moved away from Australia," Whittaker said.

(See "Undersea Mountain Photos: Brittlestar Swarm, More Found.")

Ancient Continent Pieces Once Rolling Terrain?

Scientists initially thought the plateaus had flat tops, a sign that they'd been above sea level long enough to have been eroded into plains.

But, as mapping continued, it became clear the plateaus' physical features were rolling, ranging in elevation from as little as 2,600 feet (1,000 meters) to 8,200 feet (2,500 meters) below the surface. That would mean the highest plateau rises up to about 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) above a surrounding abyss.

The fossils found in the fragments were marine bivalves, a type of mollusk—indicating that the life-forms had lived in shallow water, not on land.

The animals were also discovered in the deeper regions of the plateaus, not the highest peaks, which may have once been islands. "It's difficult to tell," Whittaker said. "But that's certainly something we'll be looking at."

(Also see "Deepest Volcanic Sea Vents Found; 'Like Another World.'")

Whittaker and colleagues will also try to match the rock samples with rocks on a nearby geological feature, the underwater Western Australian margin, which may help "pin exactly where these little pieces [of Gondwana] came from," she said.

Few details are known about how the breakup of Gondwana formed the Indian Ocean about 130 million years ago, she added. (See a prehistoric time line.)

Gondwana Breakup Still a Mystery

Some of the story of the breakup will never be told, since the Gondwana portion of what is now India later collided with Asia.

"In India, the equivalent rocks are probably now squashed beyond recognition somewhere in the Himalayas," Whittaker said.

As for whether dinosaurs might have once roamed the two plateaus, that depends on whether the features ever extended above sea level, and if so, when.

"Who knows? Whittaker said. At the moment, "anything's possible."

1 comments
James Burns
James Burns

Very interesting, especially for submariners.

Share

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

Latest News Video

  • Mazes: Key to Brain Development?

    Mazes: Key to Brain Development?

    Mazes are a powerful tool for neuroscientists trying to figure out the brain and help us learn to grapple with the unexpected.

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »