Title：Early Theories of Continental Drift
The idea that the past geography of Earth was different from today is not new. The earliest maps showing the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa probably provided people with the first evidence that continents may have once been joined together, then broken apart and moved to their present positions.
During the late nineteenth century, Austrian geologist Eduard Suess noted the similarities between the Late Paleozoic plant fossils of India, Australia, South Africa, and South America. The plant fossils comprise a unique group of plants that occurs in coal layers just above the glacial deposits on these southern continents. In this book The Face of the Earth (1885), he proposed the name “Gondwanaland” (called Gondwana here) for a supercontinent composed of the aforementioned southern landmasses. Suess thought these southern continents were connected by land bridges over which plants and animals migrated. Thus, in his view, the similarities of fossils on these continents were due to the appearance and disappearance of the connecting land bridges.
The American geologist Frank Taylor published a pamphlet in 1910 presenting his own theory of continental drift. He explained the formation of mountain ranges as a result of the lateral movements of continents. He also envisioned the present-day continents as parts of larger polar continents that eventually broke apart and migrated toward equator after Earth’s rotation was supposedly slowed by gigantic tidal forces. According to Taylor, these tidal forces were generated when Earth’s gravity captured the Moon about 100 million years ago. Although we know that Taylor ‘s explanation of continental drift is incorrect, one of his most significant contributions was his suggestion that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge—an underwater mountain chain discovered by the 1872-1876 British HMS Challenger expeditions—might mark the site at which an ancient continent broke apart, forming the present –day Atlantic Ocean.
However, it is Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, who is generally credited with developing the hypothesis of continental drift. In his monumental book, The Origin of Continents and Oceans (1915), Wegener proposed that all landmasses were originally united into a single supercontinent that he named “Pangaea.” Wegner portrayed his grand concept of continental movement in a series of maps showing the breakup of Pangaea and the movement of various continents to their present-day locations. What evidence did Wegener use to support his hypothesis of continental drift? First, Wegener noted that the shorelines of continents fit together, forming a large supercontinent and that marine, nonmarine, and glacial rock sequences of Pennsylvanian to Jurassic ages are almost identical for all Gondwana continents, strongly indicating that they were joined together at one time. Furthermore, mountain ranges and glacial deposits seem to match up in such a way that suggests continents could have once been a single landmass. And last, many of the same extinct plant and animal groups are found today on widely separated continents, indicating that the continents must have been in proximity at one time. Wegener argued that this vast amount of evidence from a variety of sources surely indicated the continents must have been close together at one time in the past.
Alexander Du Toit, a South African geologist was one of Wegener’s ardent supporters. He noted that fossils of the Permian freshwater reptile “Mesosaurus” occur in rocks of the same age in both Brazil and South Africa. Because the physiology of freshwater and marine animals is completely different, it is hard to imagine how a freshwater reptile could have swum across the Atlantic Ocean and then found a freshwater environment nearly identical to its former habitat. Furthermore, if Mesosaurus could have swum across the ocean, its fossil remains should occur in other localities besides Brazil and South Africa. It is more logical to assume that Mesosaurus lived in lakes in what are now adjacent areas of South America and Africa but were then united in a single continent.
Despite what seemed to be overwhelming evidence presented Wegener and later Du Toit and others, most geologists at the time refused to entertain the idea that the continents might have moved in the past