What Was Pangea? Why Did It Break Apart?

(Last Updated On: November 20, 2019)
What Was Pangea?

It turns out that the various countries throughout the world are not so different after all. At least, this is true if you go back 300 million years ago. That’s because we didn’t always have the seven different continents (or five to eight depending on how you look at it) that we have today. Instead, there was simply one giant landmass that contained all of the different continents. 

This impressive chunk of land was known as Pangea, which is sometimes stylized as Pangaea, and it existed for millions of years before eventually separating. But what exactly was Pangea like and what caused it to break up into the continents that we know today?

Also see: How Many Continents Are There?

Proof of Pangea’s Existence

We can thank the efforts of Polish scientist Alfred Wegener for much of the knowledge we have about Pangea. His quest to prove his theory of a past supercontinent opened the door for other scientists to study Pangea as well.

For example, one of the concrete signs that Pangea existed is that all of the various continents are able to come together and fit perfectly in a tongue-and-groove fashion, which is only possible if they were once connected. 

This idea was solidified even further when it was revealed that there were ancient coal deposits located in the United States that had an almost identical composition to coal deposits that were gathered from areas throughout Poland, Germany, and Great Britain. 

There are also numerous plant fossils that show certain species of ancient plants being located in countries that are across the ocean from one another. All of these things would only be possible if every one of the continents were once part of a giant, singular landmass. As we now know, this huge chunk of land formed approximately 300 million years ago. 

How Was Pangea Created?

Map of Pangea

The creation of supercontinent the size of Pangea is not something that happens overnight. In fact, it is believed that it took approximately 180 to 200 million years in order for Pangea to form. This incredibly slow process was the result of new Earth material being pushed up between the various tectonic plates that were located around the various rift zones of the Earth’s crust. 

With enough new material pushing the existing continents, they eventually began to collide with one another and form even bigger landmasses. Eventually, all the continents collided into one big piece of land. 

This process began when a former continent known as Laurentia, which contained many parts of modern-day North America, ended up colliding with various microcontinents–creating Euramerica. This new continent then proceeded to collide with another supercontinent that contained much of Africa, South America, and Australia, which was then known as Gondwana. With the collision of Gondwana and Euramerica, Pangea was created. 

What Was Life on Pangea Like?

Various scientific research has indicated that the climate of Pangea was more or less exactly what you would expect it to be. 

The edges of the supercontinent were likely fairly mild and received a lot of moisture. However, further inland, the climate was believed to be very hot and dry. This was especially true around the mountainous areas of the supercontinent. These mountains prevented moisture from reaching the central parts of the landmass.

The only exception to this rule was the area located near the equator, which is believed to have been quite tropical. In fact, a much bigger version of the Amazon forest is likely to have existed throughout the equatorial parts of Pangea. 

Related post: What Are the Tropics?

When it came to the wildlife, there were several main types of animals that are thought to have roamed the giant section of land. The Traversodonts, herbivorous mammals,  were one of Pangea’s earliest successful animals. From there, several types of insects began to spread such as dragonflies and beetles. Various reptiles and birds soon followed and were quickly proceeded by larger carnivorous dinosaurs all throughout Pangea. 

Why Pangea Broke Apart

After existing for approximately 100 million years, Pangea began to experience several different factors that caused it to eventually break apart. Ironically, the very thing that caused Pangea to form in the first place would later be its undoing. 

As the planet’s tectonic plates began to shift and cause mantle convection, new material gathered slowly over time to create a volcanic rift zone. After a while, this volcanic rift zone grew to such a significant size that it ended up creating a basin. Enough pressure applied to Pangea to begin separating its various continents. Over the next 200 million years, the continents began to completely detach from one another and drift to their present-day locations. 

What is even more interesting than the fact that this happened in the first place, is that it is likely to happen again. Recent scientific research has shown that the formation of supercontinents is a cyclical feature of Earth and how the continents look now is likely going to be vastly different than how they look 250 million years from now. So, while we won’t be able to experience another Pangea, distant future generations of humans just might. 


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