Lost con­ti­nent near Aus­tralia draws re­search team

Ex­pe­di­tion turns up fos­sils, shells, spores

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Doyle Rice @us­ato­day­weather Con­tribut­ing: Sean Ross­man

A mys­te­ri­ous un­der­wa­ter con­ti­nent is grad­u­ally giv­ing up its se­crets.

The lat­est ex­pe­di­tion to Zealan­dia, a sunken con­ti­nent long lost be­neath the ocean, un­cov­ered 60 mil­lion-year-old spec­i­mens that re­veal a dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent ge­og­ra­phy and cli­mate in the past, said Jamie Al­lan of the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion.

The lat­est dis­cov­ery fol­lows a Fe­bru­ary an­nounce­ment that the mostly sub­merged land just east of Aus­tralia qual­i­fied as a con­ti­nent. The boot-shaped re­gion, about the size of greater In­dia, con­tains New Zealand and New Cale­do­nia, an is­land to the north. About 94% of Zealan­dia is un­der­wa­ter.

A team of 32 sci­en­tists from 12 coun­tries re­cently took a nine­week voy­age to study the con­ti­nent’s ge­og­ra­phy, vol­canic his­tory, past cli­mates and pre­vi­ous life forms.

Sci­en­tists iden­ti­fied more than 8,000 spec­i­mens and sev­eral hun­dred fos­sils by drilling ice cores, said Ger­ald Dick­ens, the ex­pe­di­tion’s co-chief sci­en­tist. They dis­cov­ered mi­cro­scopic shells of or­gan­isms that lived in warm, shal­low seas, as well as spores and pollen from land plants — signs in­di­cat­ing Zealan­dia was likely much shal­lower than it is now.

Re­searchers aren’t ex­actly sure how Zealan­dia split from Aus­tralia but know it broke off about 40 mil­lion to 50 mil­lion years ago.

Stud­ies of sed­i­ment cores drilled dur­ing the ex­pe­di­tion will fo­cus on un­der­stand­ing how Earth’s tec­tonic plates move and the in­ner work­ings of the global cli­mate sys­tem.

Records of Zealan­dia’s his­tory, ex­pe­di­tion sci­en­tists said, will also pro­vide a test for com­puter mod­els to pre­dict future cli­mate changes.

NICK MORTIMER AND COL­LEAGUES,

A map of the world in­clud­ing the sunken con­ti­nent Zealan­dia.

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