Geology

Image of Gondwana progressively becoming the continents we know today
Pictorial representation of Gondwana breaking up
Biologists examine a fossil

Students will research the pre-history of Antarctica and how it formed the centre of an ancient mid-latitude supercontinent called Gondwana.

Two hundred million years ago Antarctica formed the centre of an ancient mid-latitude supercontinent called Gondwana, which included South America, Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand. Gondwana started to break up 180 million years ago and the separate continents drifted apart on different tectonic plates over the next 150 million years. Antarctic rocks and fossils have provided important clues in piecing together this supercontinent, and they provide records of earlier climates which were warmer and supported rich vegetation.

Fossil evidence indicates that the Antarctic continent was a much warmer place before the cooling Circumpolar Current isolated the continent from its neighbouring land masses. The sea level was much higher, the polar ice cap much smaller, and parts of the continent contained vegetation similar to today's endemic Tasmanian flora. Fossils of whales, molluscs and other invertebrate animals from this period have been found in Antarctica's Vestfold Hills, and older plant fossils have been found at Transantarctic Mountain sites close to the South Pole.

  • Explain the role of plate tectonics in the formation of Antarctica. Students can form their own Gondwana supercontinent jigsaw. First they can trace and cut out the modern continent shapes of Antarctica, Australia, Africa and South America, India and New Zealand. They can then reconstruct Gondwana using one of the websites below as reference.
  • Ask the students to research the pre-history of Antarctica, including Gondwana.
    • What conditions existed in Antarctica 180 million years ago? 180,000 years ago? 18,000 years ago?
    • Over what length of geological time have there been polar ice sheets?
    • Students may be surprised to learn that Antarctica was not always over the South Pole and has moved great distances in its long history.
  • Students can research the fossils found in Antarctica and what they tell geologists about the conditions the plants and animals were living in.

Further information on the Gondwana break-up

This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.