The Link Between Organisms and the Movement of Continents

Olivia Harne


A study at the University of Texas at Austin has uncovered a potential connection with the Earth’s lifeforms and the movement of its continents. Led by professor Whitney Behr and co-authored by professor Thorsten Becker – published on November 15th in the Earth and Planetary Science Letters – this research illustrates that sediment subducting beneath tectonic plates may regulate their movements, and may play a role in the rapid rise of mountains and the growth of continental crust.

When wind, water, or ice break down rock or when shells of microscopic organisms gather on the seafloor, it creates a layer of sediment. Sediment entering subduction zones has been established to change geological activity – such as earthquakes and their frequency – but not associated with the movement of the continents.

But this new model may also explain variations in plate speed. Behr and Becker propose that areas like India – which received a dramatic northward movement around 70 million years ago – could have been propelled by its placement surrounded by oceans filled with sea life. Thus, the sedimentary rock, formed by organic matter reaching the seafloor, could have created an effect that would add to the movement of the subducting plate.

Reconstructions of Indian motion from298120 Ma to 45 Ma.  Figure: Behr & Becker, 2018.
Reconstructions of Indian motion from 120 Ma to 45 Ma. Figure: Behr & Becker, 2018.

Becker states on the research, “What is becoming clear is that the geological history of the incoming plate matters…We will have to study in more detail how those possible feedback processes may work.”

View the initial release here.

The study:

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Olivia Harne
Olivia Harne.

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