The continent known as Argoland broke off from northwestern Australia 155 million years ago.
New research may have just solved the 155-million-year-old mystery of what happened to a small, lost continent that once broke off from northwestern Australia.
Scientists have suspected for some time that this landmass, known as Argoland, divorced itself from the Australian continent, thanks to evidence of a deep ocean void off the northwest coast of Australia. But after that, the trail went cold.
What happened to Argoland, and where it went, proved to be elusive questions until recently.
Argoland differed from a typical continent when it first broke away from Australia. India, for example, was once attached to the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana 120 million years ago, but is obviously still around today in more or less the same shape.
Argoland, on the other hand, fragmented once it broke free, its pieces scattering across the globe. Until now, researchers could only wonder where all of those pieces went.
“We knew it had to be somewhere north of Australia, so we expected to find it in Southeast Asia,” Eldert Advokaat, a researcher at Utrecth University in the Netherlands who served as lead author on the new study, told Live Science.
Their study, published in the journal Gondwana Research, outlines how Advokaat and his colleagues worked backward to reconstruct Argoland’s ancient journey.
They knew that Argoland’s fragments had drifted northward after breaking off, and so they began their search again, this time beginning at the end of the lost continent’s journey in Southeast Asia.
Here, they detected traces of the continent via tectonic “mega-units” scattered across the ocean floor. This also revealed the presence of the remnants of small oceans that had formed around 200 million years ago, which researchers believe formed as tectonic forces moved the earth and, eventually, caused Argoland to fissure and break off.
According to a news release, remains of the once 3,100-mile-long continent were “hidden beneath the green jungles of large parts of Indonesia and Myanmar.”
“That process goes on for 50 to 60 million years and around 155 million years ago, that whole collage of these ribbon continents and intervening oceans starts drifting over to Southeast Asia,” Advokaat said. “We didn’t lose a continent; it was just already a very extended and fragmented ensemble.”
A similar process happened to various other lost continents throughout history, as well, including Zealandia, also near Australia, and Greater Adria, which was once located in the Mediterranean Sea.
Humanity has, of course, long been fascinated by the idea of lost continents — the most famous example being the purported lost continent of Atlantis, first mentioned by the philosopher and mathematician Plato. Others have theorized about the mythical lost continents of Lemuria and Mu, which were said to be lands rife with ancient secrets and treasures.
But there is also a very real scientific reason scientists would want to find and research ancient lost continents.
As study co-author Douwe van Hinsbergen said, observing the life and death of continents is “vital for our understanding of processes like the evolution of biodiversity and climate, or for finding raw materials. And at a more fundamental level: for understanding how mountains are formed or for working out the driving forces behind plate tectonics.”
When pieces of Argoland collided with the ancient landmass that became Southeast Asia, it altered the biological landscape, contributing to the region’s rich biodiversity of today.
Ultimately, while the team did not uncover any ancient lost civilizations or human-lemur hybrids, this new research does offer a bevy of useful information that can guide future research into how our planet formed — and how it could change in the future.
After learning about this fascinating new research, read about Zealandia, the lost continent that sank beneath New Zealand. Or, learn all about Greater Adria, the lost continent found buried beneath Europe.