How India and Australia broke up

The end of any relationship can be rocky, but a Tasmanian geoscientist has dug into the ocean floor to understand how Australia, India and Antarctica parted ways 130 million years ago.

Joanne Whittaker. Credit: L’Oréal Australia/

Joanne Whittaker, of the University of Tasmania, has examined ocean rocks from the Perth Abyssal Plain in an attempt to reconstruct the break-up of Gondwanaland and its formation of the three continents and the Indian Ocean.

She was awarded a 2013 L’Oréal Australia and New Zealand For Women in Science Fellowship in recognition of her research, which may help improve climate change models, find new gas resources and better understand our marine environment.

About 130 million years ago the Plain, around 1,600 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton, Western Australia, was the point at which India, Antarctica and Australia connected to form Gondwanaland. They then broke apart.

Satellite gravity data suggested the modern Plain includes two undersea plateaux, which when combined measure about half the area of Tasmania. Jo’s project began with a successful bid for time on Australia’s Marine National Facility research vessel Southern Surveyor to explore the area.

In November 2011, she and her colleagues from the University of Tasmania, Sydney University and Macquarie University found, mapped and sampled rocks from these plateaux, the Batavia and Gulden Draak Knolls, which tower about 3,000 metres above the abyssal plain itself.

“It looks like they split from the margins of the moving Indian Plate about 100 million years ago,” says Jo.

She will use her Fellowship to have those rocks properly dated and identified, which will contribute to a broad reconstruction of the Indian Ocean basin.

“This model has to consistently account for geophysical and geological data across five continents, 130 million years and the entire Indian Ocean,” Jo says.

Photo: Joanne Whittaker
Credit: L’Oréal Australia/

Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Joanne Whittaker, Tel: +61 3 6226 6367,