Joining the Neoproterozoic dots

Riven by the effects of at least two Wilson cycles of rifting drifting and collision, and then covered by a variety of later sediments, late-Precambrian rocks at high latitudes around today’s North Atlantic are nowhere near as coherent as their counterparts in, for instance, Africa. Also they have a long history of field investigation that began long before the unifying theory of plate tectonics, using a parochial rather than a ‘joined-up’ approach. Consequently there is a vast literature, as witness that of say the Moines or the Dalradian in Scotland, which has strangely acted as a hindrance rather than a boon to synthesisers: not that attempts haven’t been made in recent decades. Interestingly, a multi-hemisphere approach to unification, combining Australian and British geologists, seems to have made a great deal of ground (Cawood, P.A. et al. 2010. Neoproterozoic orogeny along the margin of Rodinia: Valhalla orogen, North Atlantic. Geology, v. 38, p. 99-102).

The Rodinia (‘Motherland’) supercontinent united all continental lithosphere at the end of the Mesoproterozoic era, existed between 1100 and 750 Ma, then broke into eight drifting continents during the Neoproterozoic. Like the later Pangaea (‘all of mother Earth’) formed when all these wandering masses finally clanged together again, conditions deep in the interior of Rodinia were probably tectonically and geomorphologically almost static. All the action would have been around its rim, towards which much of global sea-floor spreading ultimately was directed. Far older continental material now juxtaposed across the high-latitude North Atlantic was in just such an exposed position at the edge of the supercontinent; Greenland abutting the present Baltic crystalline mass. Local sea-floor spreading twisted Baltica from this part of Rodinia in a clockwise manner, to leave a large triangular sea in its wake. This Asgard Sea (why not Toblerone?) received debris from uplifted masses of older crust, to fill a deep sedimentary basin ready for deformation should tectonics warrant that. Two such episodes (980-910, 830-710 Ma) created the older Neoproterozoic metamorphic belts which have long drawn geologists to study Greenland, Scotland and Scandinavia in great detail: for British geologists the attraction was the complexity of the Moine Schists in which John Ramsay famously laid the foundations of modern polyphase structural analysis in the late 1950s and 1960s. A noteworthy point is that by comparison with most mountain belts, the Valhalla orogen took an awfully long time to form: around 300 Ma.

An old theory resurrected

Before the wide acceptance of sea-floor spreading and continental drift geoscientists had to seek explanations for the common occurrence of very similar fossils on now widely separated land masses. On the other hand, Alfred Wegener used observations such as the presence of fossilised tongue-like Glossopteris leaves in the Permian sediments of all the southern continents, and similar distributions of reptiles to support his theory. His detractors tried to explain away the fossil evidence by suggesting now-vanished land bridges, ‘island hopping’, floating seeds, and natural Noah’s Arks carrying animals and so on. With the discovery of irrefutable evidence for sea-floor spreading Wegener was vindicated, albeit long after his death, and the views of his detractors became ridiculed and neglected in their turn. But one puzzle remained: the fauna of Madagascar. Beginning about 170 Ma ago, Madagascar along with India parted company with Africa, to the extent that Madagascar is now more than 430 km off the East African coast (India moved much further independently).

Madagascar, of course, is famous for its lemurs but its fauna includes other animals found nowhere else. Another oddity is that late-Mesozoic Malagasy sediments have yielded no evidence for ancestors to these animals, so the fauna could not have evolved from African stock set adrift with the microcontinent. The only explanation then seems to be that the little animal ancestors drifted on vegetation rafts from Africa – note this would be more unlikely for large animals. Yet today’s current patterns make any drift toward Madagascar highly unlikely. The puzzle may have been resolved, if one believes computer modelling, by the different surface flow patterns of the Indian Ocean during the Palaeocene (Ali, J.R. & Huber, M. 2010. Mammalian biodiversity on Madagascar controlled by ocean currents. Nature, v. 463, p. 653-656). At that time the drifting island was further south than it is now, and currents would intermittently have flowed from East Africa towards it. As it was driven northwards, so it entered the influence of the westward flowing, South Equatorial Current that now isolates it from its parent continent. The idea of rafting, first developed in 1940 by George Gaylord Simpson, an opponent of anything smacking of continental drift, also seems the only possibility if the arrival of New World monkeys in South America and other oddities are to be explained.

See also: Krause, D.W. 2010. Washed up in Madagascar. Nature, v. 463, p. 613-614.

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