An international team of palaeontologists and geologists have dug up 54 million year old fossils in India. The fossils are from mammals, birds and reptiles, including a newly discovered giant snake. Some of these derive from European fauna, others from primitive animals of the supercontinent Gondwana. This remarkable mix raises speculation that there were several land bridges connected to India, that was an island at the time and drifted towards Asia as a Noah's Ark.
Palaeontologists of our Institute, collaborating with colleagues from India and the United States, have excavated 54 million year old fossils of over 30 types of vertebrates. They made this discovery on a new palaeontological site: the mine of Tadkeshwar, on the west coast of India. The research team described birds and amphibians, but also crocodiles, rodents, odd-toed ungulates, carnivore mammals, and primates.
A large amount of the dug up animals were also found in the nearby Vastan mine, which has been scoured by palaeontologists for over a decade. Despite this, new vertebrates that had never been seen on Indian soil before, were discovered. They include a new snake, the Platyspondylophis tadkeshwarensis (new genus and species), a crocodilian and a pantodont, and extinct herbivore.
India: hop-on hop-off
When the animals lived in Tadkeshwar and Vastan, some 54 million years ago (the Early Eocene), India was still an island in the middle of the ocean. It had ripped off of Madagascar and was floating towards modern day Asia. The impact of India and the Eurasian tectonic plate is what created the Himalayas.
The study shows that some of the animals excavated at Tadkeshwar and Vastan originated from Gondwana (the southern supercontinent that consisted of Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australia), other animals have a strong European kinship. Thierry Smith, palaeontologist of our Institute, suggests that because of this there must have been land bridges connected to India during the tens of million years in which the island drifted toward Asia.
In the journal Geoscience Frontiers the researchers describe three possible scenarios. The Gondwana species, such as the giant snake or the crocodilian, may have travelled from Africa to India, through Madagascar when the latter two areas were still connected (about 88 million years ago). Another scenario is that the animals dispersed from Africa through a land bridge connecting the Horn of Africa (East Africa) to India.
And how do you explain the “European” species in India during the early Eocene, like precursors of modern horses, primates and rodents? The species possibly found a route between Europe and India through stretched out islands in the Tethys Ocean in between Africa, Europe and Asia. That’s the third scenario.
Whether the dug up “European” animals came here from India or if the animals were originally European and moved to India cannot be determined by palaeontologists until further excavations take place.
The research was financed by the National Geographic Society, the Leakey Foundation and Belspo. The research team consisted of, amongst others, researchers from our institute (Thierry Smith, Annelise Folie and Floréal Solé), University of Gent, University of Namur, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Garhwal University, Panjab University and John Hopkins University School of Medicine. More information and pictures of the excavations can be found on www.paleurafrica.be.