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Erosion of supermountains would have contributed to the evolution of life on Earth –

Supermountains larger than the Himalayas would have played an important role in the evolution of life at two times in Earth’s history, thousands of years ago. So says a new study led by the Australian National University that tracked the formation of these mountain ranges and the possible relationship of their erosion with the supply of nutrients in the oceans.

Geologists believe that the erosion of these supermountains over thousands of years provided a large amount of nutrients for life to explode in the oceans. These mountain ranges separated ancient supercontinents.

The study’s lead author, Ziyi Zhu, said that today there is nothing to compare with the size of these mountain ranges, which stretched up to four times longer than the Himalayas.

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Their wear would have fueled two of the biggest evolutionary events on Earth: first, the emergence of the first complex cells, 2 billion years ago; and then the Cambrian explosion, in which marine life multiplied rapidly around 541 million years ago. As erosion destroyed the supermountains, nutrients thrown into the sea would have accelerated evolution.

Mountains are the result of the collision between tectonic plates. They can rise for kilometers high, but just as fast as this dynamic is erosion caused by winds, rain and other natural factors that erode the landscape.

Evolution of the Supermountains

To understand the evolution of these supermountains, the researchers analyzed minerals left behind. For example, zircon crystals, which form under high pressures below these mountain ranges, can provide information about when and where they formed.

The first mountain range was already known, called the Transgondwana Supermountain. It crossed the vast Gondwana supercontinent that joined Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica and India — between 650 and 500 million years ago.

The second mountain range existed between 2 billion and 1.8 billion years ago, known as Supermountain Nuna. The chain would also have extended for up to 8 km in the supercontinent before Gondwana, called Nuna (or Columbia).

The weathering of the supermountains threw large amounts of iron and phosphorus into the sea through the water cycle. The formation of Supermountain Nuna, for example, coincides with the appearance of the first eukaryotic cells — cells with a nucleus that evolved into plants, animals and fungi.

Meanwhile, the erosion of the Transgondwanan Supermountain took place at a time when life was rapidly multiplying in the oceans. Previous studies found that mountain formation stopped 1.7 billion to 750 million years ago, when marine life slowed evolution.

The researchers noted that more research is still needed to confirm all of these relationships, but highlighted that the new study provides good evidence for how Earth’s highest points would have fueled life miles away in the oceans.

The research was presented in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

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