The mostly submerged continent of Zealandia may have been much closer to land level than previously thought, providing pathways for animals and plants to cross continents from 80m years ago, an expedition has revealed.
Zealandia, a for the most part underwater landmass in the South Pacific, was declared the Earth’s newest continent this year in a paper in the journal of the Geological Society of America. It includes Lord Howe Island off the east coast of Australia, New Caledonia and New Zealand.
On Wednesday researchers shared findings from their two-month-long expedition, one of the first extensive surveys of the region, announcing fossil discoveries and evidence of large-scale tectonic movements.
“The discovery of microscopic shells of organisms that lived in warm shallow seas, and spores and pollen from land plants, reveal that the geography and climate of Zealandia was dramatically different in the past,” said Prof Gerald Dickens of Rice University.
Researchers drilled more than 860 metres below the sea floor in six different sites across Zealandia. The sediment cores collected showed evidence of tectonic and ecological change across millions of years.
“The cores acted as time machines for us, allowing us to reach further and further back in time,” said Stephen Pekar, a researcher on board the scientific drilling vessel, in August. “As one scientist put it: ‘We are rewriting the geologic and tectonic history of Zealandia at this drill site.’”
The 5 million sq km continent, roughly the size of the Indian subcontinent, is believed to have separated from Australia and Antarctica, as part of Gondwana, about 80m years ago.
On Wednesday Prof Rupert Sutherland from New Zealand’s Victoria University said the expedition had discovered “big geographic changes”.
“[The research] has big implications for understanding big scientific questions, such as how did plants and animals disperse and evolve in the South Pacific? The discovery of past land and shallow seas now provides an explanation: there were pathways for animals and plants to move along.”
Geologists and academics have intermittently argued for Zealandia’s recognition as a continent for the past 20 years. The name was coined by the geophysicist and oceanographer Bruce Luyendyk in 1995.
But this year’s paper in GSA Today was “when the penny dropped” in terms of Zealandia’s growing recognition, said one of its co-authors, Nick Mortimer.
Mortimer told Guardian Australia in February that his was the first peer-reviewed scientific paper on Zealandia but that it was “nothing new” to many other geologists.