Facts for the Attention Deficient- Paleogeography

I’ve prattled on about paleontology before. It’s a hobby that I encourage all children to never outgrow, and for all adults to get back into. There’s so many facets to learning about the world as once was, and so many of the endless puzzle pieces are discovered every day, that you never get bored. There’s much more to it than just the animals; anyone can find something interesting to gnaw on.

For example, are you one of those nerds that loves it when the fantasy novel you’re reading comes with a map? Then you’ll love paleogeography. It’s like poring over those same made up maps- only they all really existed. Go ahead and click on that link, and have fun!

Instead of outlining the concept in a coherent essay like one of those fancypants “professional writers,” I will assemble some bite-size factoids to lure you into the topic, or at the very least take away to impress someone at a party. It’ll also be littered with Wikipedia links, like a true unprofessional.

1. There are two paleogeographic places that most Americans are familiar with. The first is Pangaea, which as we all know was a “supercontinent” comprised of today’s landmasses.

Most people are under the impression that Pangaea is what any such supercontinent is called, and that Pangaea was the original Earthly landmass. Not true. The joining and rifting of the continents is a cycle (believed to be reapeated every 500 million years), and each super continent gets a different name. Pangaea is in fact the most recent supercontinent, forming around 350 million years ago. It was preceded by such supercontinents as Vaalbara, Kenorland, Columbia, and Rodinia, and probably even more than that.

Pangaea started in the Late Paleozoic and started breaking up in the Jurassic about 175 MYA . It broke into two smaller supercontinents- dubbed Laurasia (today’s northern hemisphere masses, including the US) and Gondwana (the southern hemisphere masses) . I like to say Gondwana. Gondwana Gondwana Gondwana. It used to be called Gondwanaland, which was even cooler.

2. There’s not only goofy landmasses, but there’s also seaways and oceans accompanying them. There’s Panthalassa, the ocean that went with Pangaea, the Tethys Ocean that separated Laurasia and Gondwana, and the very cooly named Sundance Sea of the western states.

There’s also the Western Interior Sea of the Mesozoic, which is of somewhat local interest and has an awesome book written about it. If you’re ever in a Kansas bookstore, check out the Local Interest section. Among the travel guides and the horrible self-published local authors, you might find a book called Oceans of Kansas. Buy it. It’s awesome. They also have a website if you can’t or won’t get the book. Imagine taking a vacation and heading some miles west to go fishing for mosasaurs.

3. The second most known paleogeographical artifact is Beringia, the famous land bridge between Alaska and Siberia. Land bridges are fun, because they totally mess with the local wildlife in the days before we invented ships filled with rats and domestic dogs. Beringia introduced many Old World creatures into North America, bringing mammoths, lions, and of course, humans. The reverse is also true- for example, camels originated in North America, and crossed over to the Old World across the land bridge.

There’s other land bridges that did similar things. For millions of years after the Age of Dinosaurs, South America was similar to Australia in that it was totally isolated from the rest of the world. Like Australia, marsupials flourished, as did giant flightless birds, edentates (sloths and armadillos), and entire families of placental mammals that have no descendants living today. Then came the Isthmus of Panama, and all hell broke loose.

Placental mammals flowed in, and the large marsupials couldn’t compete. Sloths, glyptodonts, giant birds and parrots headed north. Foxes, peccaries, mammoths, llamas and rabbits headed south. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

That’s not all the Panama land bridge did. It also messed up the world climate. The developing bridge cut off ocean currents that normally flowed through the gap. This created the Gulf Stream, and soon currents throughout the oceans were affected. This warmed up Europe, while simultaneously ushering in a new Ice Age with all that wet weather. All this without the help of invading European conquistadors and the Industrial Revolution. You’re off the hook this time, dead white dudes!

Thus concludes my jabbering about paleogeography. I hope you “dug” it. (Get it it’s a pun because in paleontology you dig up stuff eh eh do ya get it?). At the very least I hope this enhances your enjoyment the next time you crack open Tolkien.


4 Responses to “Facts for the Attention Deficient- Paleogeography”

  1. 1 ansonburlingame
    January 23, 2010 at 3:58 pm


    But, But, But…. The earth has only existed for a few 10’s of thousands of years. How do you explain all this stuff starting from that premise????


    • January 23, 2010 at 7:57 pm

      A “few” tens of thousands?! My good sir, I do believe you mean 10,000 years TOPS!

      As for continental drift, well, that’s just God’s way of punishing giant marsupials who make deals with the devil. Pat Robertson told me. And He had to get rid of the Western Interior Seaway, or we wouldn’t be blessed with the state of Texas.

  2. January 29, 2010 at 2:47 am

    Kaje, Cool stuff !

    Joplin has a dandy small company – Niobrara Research & Development. They answer the question, “Where did you get the name Niobrara?” at (bottom of) [www.niobrara.com/other/newsletter/0709_news.pdf].

    One of my co-workers at NR&D was a western Kansas native. He returned from a visit home with a fine sample of Niobrara chalk. I am still contemplating a good use for it.

    Tangent (but I didn’t start it!): geological & paleological dating is a fascinating subject. The thickness of the Niobrara Chalks, considering sedimentation rates, establish (even ignoring corroborating evidence) times that are orders of magnitude larger than the assertions of advocates of superstition. – Jim

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