Key Takeaways:

  1. Ancient colossal mountain ranges known as “supermountains” have been discovered, twice the size of the Himalayas.
  2. These supermountains significantly influenced Earth’s evolution by releasing nutrients and oxygen into the environment.
  3. The Nuna Supermountain coincided with the emergence of Earth’s first eukaryotic cells, while the Transgondwanan Supermountain coincided with the Cambrian explosion.
  4. A “boring billion” period in Earth’s history when mountain formation halted may have slowed down evolution in the oceans.
  5. More research is needed, but this discovery sheds light on Earth’s geological and biological history.

In a groundbreaking discovery, a team of geologists has unearthed evidence of ancient mountain ranges, labeled “supermountains,” that once stood three times taller and thousands of miles longer than the Himalayas. These geological behemoths, unlike any present-day counterparts, have played a pivotal role in shaping Earth’s history, and their disappearance likely fueled some of the most significant evolutionary surges in the planet’s existence.

Ziyi Zhu, a postdoctoral student at The Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra and lead author of a new study on the mountain majesties, said in a statement. “It’s not just their height — if you can imagine the 1,500 miles (2,400 km) long Himalayas repeated three or four times, you get an idea of the scale.”

These prehistoric peaks were more than just an awesome sight; according to new research by Zhu and her colleagues published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, the formation and destruction of these two gargantuan ranges may have also fueled two of the biggest evolutionary boom times in our planet’s history — the first appearance of complex cells roughly 2 billion years ago, and the Cambrian explosion of marine life 541 million years ago.

The supercontinent Gondwana (shown in this concept image) included what are today South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula. (Image credit: MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via Getty Images)

Mountains rise when Earth’s ever-shifting tectonic plates smash two landmasses together, pushing surface rocks to soaring heights. Mountains can grow for hundreds of millions of years or more — but even the loftiest ranges are born with an expiration date, as erosion from wind, water and other forces immediately starts to whittle those peaks away.

In their study, the researchers examined zircon crystals with low levels of lutetium, a rare Earth element that only occurs at the base of towering mountains. The data unveiled two significant episodes of supermountain formation: one dating back 2 billion to 1.8 billion years ago and the other from 650 million to 500 million years ago. While previous studies hinted at the existence of the Transgondwanan Supermountain, spanning Gondwana, a vast ancient supercontinent, the earlier Nuna Supermountain had remained undetected until now.

The distribution of zircon crystals demonstrates that these supermountains were massive, likely spanning over 5,000 miles in length – twice the distance from Florida to California. Their erosion, as they gradually receded into history, unleashed vast quantities of nutrients, including iron and phosphorus, into the oceans through the water cycle. This nutrient influx likely accelerated biological processes in the ocean, fostering greater complexity in evolution. Moreover, the eroding supermountains may have also released oxygen into the atmosphere, rendering Earth even more hospitable to complex life forms.

The formation of the Nuna Supermountain coincides with the emergence of Earth’s first eukaryotic cells, which eventually evolved into plants, animals, and fungi. Simultaneously, the Transgondwanan Supermountain would have been eroding during another evolutionary explosion in the seas, marking the appearance of the first large animals and the Cambrian explosion.

The research also corroborated previous studies that identified a “boring billion” period in Earth’s history, spanning from 1.7 billion to 750 million years ago. This era, as the name implies, witnessed slow or stagnant evolution in Earth’s oceans. Some scientists suggest that the absence of new mountain formation during this period may have hindered nutrient transfer to the oceans, impacting marine life’s development.

While additional research is necessary to establish a concrete link between supermountains and the acceleration of evolution, this study offers compelling evidence that the planet’s most significant biological transformations occurred in the presence of colossal mountain ranges. The unveiling of these supermountains sheds light on Earth’s geological and biological past, opening new avenues for understanding the complex interplay between geology and evolution.

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