Interactive map shows New Zealand's messy break-up with Australia

Just how long New Zealand has been a far-flung outpost of the world has been illustrated in an online interactive map.

The 'Ancient Earth' tool on website dinosaurpictures.org shows that when Pangaea - the supercontinent the early dinosaurs called home - started breaking up 175 million years ago, New Zealand was one of the first places to go it alone.

About 240 million years ago, at the dawn of the dinosaur age, the land that would one day become Aotearoa was beachfront on Pangaea's southern coast.

Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org
240 million years ago. Photo credit: Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org

Already our closest neighbour was what would go on to become Australia - but instead of being separated by the Tasman Sea, we were joined at the hip.

Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org
200 million years ago. Photo credit: Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org

About 200 million years ago - when the first stegosaurus emerged - New Zealand already appears to be itching to get away from Australia, but the Tasman Sea remains land, keeping the two together.

Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org
170 million years ago. Photo credit: Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org

Now we're talking. Around 170 million years ago, New Zealand was birthed when Pangaea began to split. We were still only a hop, skip and a jump from the tail of South America - then still attached to Africa - but had begun our journey eastward.

Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org
120 million years ago. Photo credit: Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org

But it wasn't all plain sailing - it was more like sinking. By 120 million years ago, the land that according to myth would one day be fished up by Māui was underwater, according to Ancient Earth.

Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org
90 million years ago. Photo credit: Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org

When the dinosaurs died out, New Zealand was clinging to dear life too - adrift in the Pacific, with only a fraction of the continent now called Zealandia poking its head out of the water.

Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org
66 million years ago. Photo credit: Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org

About 25 million years ago, plate movements pushed more land above water, according to Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. This can be seen on the Ancient Earth globe too, which clearly shows what we know as the North Island. The south - either Māui is yet to sail into town, or something else is afoot.

The Ancient Earth map shows what would soon become the bottom half of the South Island approaching from the east, riding on the Pacific plate. When it collides with the Australian plate, the Southern Alps are formed.

Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org
20 million years ago. Photo credit: Ancient Earth/dinosaurpictures.org

And that brings us to today. While the Ancient Earth map only tells us the past, others have had a go at predicting the future.

In 2014, geologist Christopher Scotese of the Universtiy of Texas created an animation showing how the world's continents may evolve in the next 250 million years  - and it's bad news for any Kiwis who want to keep our distance from Australia. New Zealand is forecast to end up just off the coast of Queensland.

NZ future
New Zealand and Australia in about 200 million years' time. Photo credit: Christopher Scotese

But we're in good company - Dr Scotese predicts all the world's continents will one day become one again, as Pangaea Proxima. He originally called the future supercontinent Pangaea Ultima, before someone pointed out that would mean it's the final continent, which was a bit grim.

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