Gondwana Supercontinent: Definition & Breakup

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Millions of years ago, all of the land in the Southern hemisphere was joined together into one large supercontinent called Gondwana. In this lesson, learn about how Gondwana formed and later broke apart.

An Introduction to Plate Tectonics

Did you know that the continents were not always located where they are today? Although it moves too slowly for you to feel or see, the surface of the Earth is always in motion and always changing.

The thin upper layer of the Earth called the crust sits on top of a region called the mantle, which is so hot it is made of melted rock known as magma. This magma is constantly in motion, with hotter magma rising to the surface only to sink back down as it cools. The crust is divided into large sections called plates, constantly shifting, growing, and shrinking depending on the motion of the underlying magma. The motion of these plates is described by a scientific theory known as plate tectonics.

Plate tectonics explains why there are more Earthquakes and volcanoes along boundaries between plates. It also helps us to understand how the continents have moved over time.

The Formation of Gondwana

Let's go back in time a few years, 500 million years to be exact, to see how plate tectonics led to the formation of the large supercontinent that we now know as Gondwana. Before this time, there were several distinct landmasses in the Southern hemisphere. These land masses were slowly pushed together until they joined up and formed the supercontinent, Gondwana, 500 million years ago. This was not the first supercontinent to form in the history of the Earth, and it wouldn't be the last.

After Gondwana had existed for about 200 million years, it collided with another large land mass to form an even bigger supercontinent known as Pangaea. This new super continent contained almost all of the land in the whole world at that time. In fact, all of the continents that we can see on the surface of the Earth today were once a part of Pangaea.

The Destruction of Gondwana

Pangaea was not as long-lived as Gondwana, though, and about 250 million years ago it began to break apart.

First, the northern half of this massive supercontinent began to move away from the Southern part. When it broke off, the Northern part formed a supercontinent known as Laurasia, while the southern part, Gondwana, retained the same basic shape that it had before it became part of Pangaea.

Eventually, Gondwana would also separate into two halves. About 180 million years ago, the land that would eventually form South America and Africa split off from the rest of Gondwana and began to move west. South America and Africa separated from each other about 140 million years ago, and as water rushed in to fill the space between them, the Atlantic ocean was formed.

The supercontinents Laurasia and Gondwana formed when the even larger supercontinent Pangaea broke up
gondwana and laurasia

The eastern half split apart to form Antarctica, Australia, the Indian subcontinent, and the island of Madagascar. Antarctica and Australia actually stuck together the longest, only separating about 50 million years ago when the plate containing Australia began to move northward. In fact, Australia is STILL moving northward a few centimeters every year! In another few million years, it may collide with Asia and change the face of the Earth once again.

Evidence for the Existence of Gondwana

How do we know that Gondwana actually existed? There were certainly no people living hundreds of millions of years ago, so we don't have any recorded history of these events. However, there is a lot of evidence that these landmasses were once joined.

First, the shape of the current continents, like South America and Africa, shows that they could have fit together like puzzle pieces to form a larger continent. There are also similar geological features found on continents that are now very far apart.

Even more evidence comes from the fossil record. Even though there were no people living when Gondwana existed, there were other plants and animals that lived there. This was the age of the dinosaurs, and many types of animals moved freely across Gondwana!

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