BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
From the days of Christopher Columbus and Magellan, folklore and mythologies alike have abounded with fantastical tales of lost continents crawling with mythical creatures and mind-boggling features. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World brought the idea into the modern world, populating a mythical continent with dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters. The idea has lingered in our pop-cultural consciousness ever since; even today, googling “lost continents” will turn up a host of dubious information on mythological continents such as Lemuria, Ogygia, and, of course, Atlantis. As far as we know, we’ve mapped out the Earth very thoroughly and charted every continent and landmass on Earth. But lost continents are out there, just not in the way that you’d expect.
The diminutive island of Mauritius lies off the coast of Madagascar, a land of coral reefs, rolling hills, and deep primordial forests that evokes the darkest reaches of Jurassic Park. You might know it as the former home of the dodo, last seen in the 17th century before human sailors and rats drove it extinct. Mauritius, shrimpy and insignificant as it is, hides another secret – the existence of a small continent that was once sandwiched between Madagascar and India. Scientists are calling this hypothetical landmass “Mauritia” in honor of the island.
Don’t book your airline tickets just yet, however: whatever remains of Mauritia, likely nothing more than a few chunks of melted rock at this point, lies at the bottom of the seabed, far beyond the reach of even the best ocean liners. Indeed, Mauritia likely broke up and sank more than 80 million years ago, back when the dinosaurs had reached their zenith. Only thanks to the efforts of a team of South African scientists from the University of Witwatersrand do we know that the continent ever existed. Irregularities in the seabed hint at pieces of very old tectonic crust that had sunk and were subsequently covered in lava, like a chocolate-covered almond. These lumps stood out from the otherwise featureless seabed.
Scientists believe that Mauritia sank in the middle of the Cretaceous era, a victim of continental drift. At one time, India, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Madagascar, Mauritia, and South America stood as a single supercontinent, a mighty assemblage of southern landmasses paleontologists dubbed “Gondwanaland.” Gondwanaland sat opposite of its northern neighbor, Laurasia, made up of North America, Europe, and Asia. Both were remnants of the original Pangaea, which split in half during the Jurassic era. It’s thanks to this peculiarity of plate tectonics that dinosaurs and mammals became as widespread as they did: both species evolved on Pangaea, spread across that continent, and the subsequent breakup carried them across the world.
As Gondwanaland made like the Beatles and broke up, Mauritia enjoyed a brief heyday as a kind of intermediary landmass between Africa and India (perhaps Mauritia was the Yoko Ono of the bunch.) But over the course of several million years, Mauritia ruptured as the tectonic plate on which it was located stretched ever thinner by increasing continental movement, like a kid stretching silly putty too thin until it eventually snaps. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes tore the land asunder – dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures probably perished in the millions as the continent ceased to be. The remains of the continent probably became a small archipelago, before erosion and changing sea levels eventually swallowed the land up entirely; whatever remained sank to the bottom of the ocean and stayed there, until the piercing light of science swept the seabed and revealed the existence of, in the words of Mr. Doyle, a lost world.
The Earth may seem static, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Dynamic, ever-shifting, and red-hot, the existence of Mauritia shows that there’s still a lot we don’t know about the history of our planet.