Scientists believe they have discovered evidence of a lost “microcontinent” that may have existed between 660 million and about 2 billion years ago.
According to an article on the National Geographic web site, a group of researchers have discovered sand grains on the island of Mauritius that contain fragments of the mineral zircon that could be anywhere from 660 million to approximately 2 billion years old.
Mauritius is located in the Indian Ocean, about 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa, east of Madagascar.
Scientists think the tiny island formed some nine million years ago from cooling lava spewed by undersea volcanoes.
In a new study, published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, scientists concluded that the older minerals once were part of a now vanished landmass.
“When lavas moved through continental material on the way towards the surface, they picked up a few rocks containing zircon," geologist Bjørn Jamtveit, a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to National Geographic.
“Most of these rocks probably disintegrated and melted due to the high temperatures of the lavas, but some grains of zircons survived and were frozen into the lavas [during the eruption] and rolled down to form rocks on the Mauritian surface,” Jamtveit explained.
The researchers have given the phantom microcontinent a name: Mauritia.
They believe tiny bits of the landmass were dragged up to the surface during the formation of Mauritius.
Jamtveit and his colleagues estimate that the lost microcontinent was about a quarter of the size of Madagascar, which, at 228, 900 square miles, is the world’s forty-seventh largest country.
Not everyone in the scientific community has come to the same conclusion as Jamtveit and his fellow geologists.
Jérôme Dyment, a geologist at the Paris Institute of Earth Physics in France, is unconvinced by the work because, he says, it's possible that the zircons found their way to Mauritius by other means, either as part of ship ballast or modern construction material.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which are not given by the authors so far,” said Dyment, who did not take part in the research study.
"Finding zircons in sand is one thing, finding them within a rock is another one ... Finding the enclave of deep rocks that, according to the author's inference, bring them to the surface during an eruption would be much more convincing evidence," he said.
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