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Mauritius' beaches contain tiny clues pointing to sunken lost continent

Crystals found on the sandy beaches of Mauritius suggest that chunks of an ancient continent called
Crystals found on the sandy beaches of Mauritius suggest that chunks of an ancient continent calledTim Graham

The beaches of Mauritius surround the island like a foamy white trim and sprinkled in the sand are clues to a lost, submerged continent.

Ancient zircon crystals harvested from sand samples were found to be curiously older than the island itself. The island is only 8.9 million years old, but one of the hardy crystals dated back almost 2 billion years, and others are estimated to be at least 660 million years old. 

Scientists who found the minerals explain that they belong to an ancient continent they have named "Mauritia" and estimate that there are chunks of it lying beneath the ocean and under the ocean floor between the land masses of India and Africa. A team led by Björn Jamtveit from the University of Oslo surmises that the telltale zircons rose to the surface on columns of hot magma welling up from under the crust. They coated Mauritius — itself the product of a recent volcanic belch — and remained there until they were picked up, sorted and analyzed by the Norwegian crew. 

Mauritia would have been part of a single land mass called Rodinia that included what’s now India and Madagascar, Jamtveit told National Geographic. Per the scientists' theory, Mauritia sank beneath the ocean when India was pried away from Africa to form the Indian Ocean. Their findings were published in Nature Geoscience this week.

While some experts agree that there isn't another likely source for the crystals, as Conall Mac Niocaill told Nature News, others like Jerome Dymentdon't rule out the possibility that they could have landed on the beach on board human-made machinery or materials.

But based on what they've found, Jamtveit and and his team write that they fully expect to find other land masses hiding under the sea, too. 

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Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. Follow on Twitter, Google+.