Scientists Discover Ancient Continent Lurking Under Mauritius

Mauritius beach
A view of the Pointe aux Piments beach on the Indian Ocean island Mauritius, August 5, 2015. Scientists have discovered fragments of an ancient continent that lies buried beneath the island nation. Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

Scientists have discovered fragments of an ancient continent that lies beneath the African island of Mauritius at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

A new study published in the journal Nature Communications has found zircon crystals—minerals founds in granites in the crust of continents—that are 3 billion years old on Mauritius, which is itself only 8 million years old.

The discovery confirms previous research that had discovered zircon crystals of a similar ages on the island's beaches, but which had been criticized by experts, who proposed that the crystals could have been blown onto the island by wind or attached to the shoes of the scientists.

The present study analyzed zircons in trachyte rocks, which would only have emerged as the result of a volcanic eruption. "The fact that we found the ancient zircons in rock corroborates the previous study and refutes any suggestion of wind-blown, wave-transported or pumice-rafted zircons explaining the earlier results," said Lewis Ashal of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, the study's lead author.

The researchers named the long-lost continent Mauritia. They proposed that it most likely splintered off from the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, which broke up around 200 million years ago to form the separate land masses of Africa, Australia, India, South America and Antarctica due to the movement of tectonic plates.

The research could herald the further discovery of fragments of old continents, according to experts. Several pieces of ancient continents have been discovered off the coast of Western Australia and underneath Iceland, according to Alan Collins of the University of Adelaide, Australia. "It's only now as we explore more of the deep oceans that we're finding all these bits of ancient continents around the place," Collins told New Scientist.