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Uncovering Zealandia: The Hypothesized Continent That's Actually Real

The continent was only formally recognized in 2017, but there's still much we don't know about it.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Science Writer

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

A map of the landmass that makes up the eighth continent.

Zealandia was only recognized six years ago, but the more we learn about it the more questions we have to answer.

Image credit: Ulrich Lange, Bochum, Germany via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).

The world map was not always as complete as it is today and for centuries explorers spent time, money, and, sometimes, their lives, traveling the planet to fill in the gaps. Relying on a mix of observation, hypothesis, and pure myth-testing, these explorers searched for landmasses and peoples both real and imagined. 

As you can imagine, sometimes they got it right and sometimes they got it wrong. But for centuries, ancient maps hypothesized a landmass in the Southern Hemisphere that, until recently, defied every effort to find it and even now there is so much we don’t know.


The age of discovery 

The Age of Exploration began with confidence in the power of empirical verification and accurate measurements to create new and improved representations of the world. However, many cartographers continued to mix reported data and contemporary measurements with features inherited from maps of the ancient world that were created as a mixed picture of geography and world history. 

These mappa mundi often depicted features of the known world alongside mythological or hypothesized ones to the extent that it was not easy to know what was real and what was imaginary.

One such example was Terra Australis Incognita, a landmass that was thought to occupy a large portion of the Southern Hemisphere. This continent was hypothesized as a kind of counterweight for the known land distribution of the Northern Hemisphere. Essentially, Terra Australis must have existed to keep the world balanced.

The first references to this continent appeared in antiquity, but it became a popular feature on many medieval and early modern maps, appearing on some as late as the 18th century.


For centuries, explorers looked for Terra Australis but could not find it. In 1769, Captain James Cook entered the Pacific aboard the Endeavour to observe the transit of Venus but also to find the long-expected continent. 

During this time, Cook explored the coast of New Zealand and eventually gave up, concluding that the country had nothing to do with the landmass he sought. But what if he was right and looking in the wrong place? Or, should we say, looking in the wrong direction?

Zealandia – a hidden continent

In 2017, the world was shocked to learn that there was in fact an eighth continent on the planet that was hitherto unknown. It seems Captain Cook was right to consider New Zealand, but he should have been looking under the waves.

Zealandia (Te Riu-a-Māui to the Māori) is a huge landmass that is almost completely submerged in the southwest Pacific. It measures around 5 million square kilometers (1.9 million square miles), which is about two-thirds of Australia. It is by far the world’s smallest, thinnest, and youngest continent.


One of the first clues that Zealandia existed below the waves came from the observations of Sir James Hector, the Scottish naturalist who concluded that New Zealand was “the remnants of a mountain-chain that formed the crest of a great continental area that stretched far to the south and east, and which is now submerged.”

Then, in the 1960s, the geological definition of what a continent actually is became firmer – essentially a continent had to be a large (emphasis on the large) geological area with high elevation, a thick crust, and a wide variety of rocks. Now geologists were armed with something they could look for and try to prove the existence of. 

In 1995, an American geophysicist once again referred to New Zealand as sitting on a continent and posited the name “Zealandia”.

This started to drive a new appetite for the search, but the real appeal kicked off when the United Nations brought the Convention on the Law of the Sea into force. According to this convention, a country could claim as their legal territory any land that extended from their Exclusive Economic Zone, and land that was part of their “extended continental shelf”, as well as any resources that came with it. Suddenly, New Zealand had strong reasons to investigate its surrounding region. Rock analysis and satellite data slowly accumulated to reveal the existence of the new continent.

The sunken world and its mysteries

The eighth continent has been known for six years, and there are still many things we do not know. Most of the challenges surrounding its exploration relate to its inaccessibility – it being under more than a kilometer of water.

What we do know is that Zealandia was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, but it was eventually broken apart by tectonic forces around 85 million years ago, creating the Tasman Sea. Just how this process worked is still unclear, and scientists are baffled by how thin the landmass is and why it didn’t just break up into smaller continents. Moreover, experts do not know whether Zealandia was ever above water, or whether it has always been submerged.

This matter in question has important implications for those interested in wildlife, because, if the continent was not always underwater, what would have lived on it? At the moment, there does not seem to be enough fossil evidence to answer this question, but tantalizing clues exist in the form of the odd remains of sauropods (long-necked dinosaurs) and potentially an ankylosaur, which were found in New Zealand during the 1990s.

Further evidence came in 2006, with the discovery of a bone belonging to a suspected allosaur, which was discovered on the Chatham Islands. Each one of these discoveries dates to the point after Zealandia separated from Gondwana.


There are further mysteries surrounding the relationship to modern Kiwi birds – the adorable beady-eyed flightless bird – that is weirdly closely related to the now-extinct giant Elephant Bird of Madagascar. These two birds are seemingly impossibly isolated from one another, but perhaps they both shared a common ancestor that was once more widespread on Gondwana.

Despite these lingering unknowns, it is likely that further analysis will reveal more about this fascinating continent in the future. It also shows that there are many things yet to be discovered.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.


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