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Map showing Balkanatolia 40 million years ago and at the present day. | Photo Credit: Alexis Licht & Grégoire Métais/CNRS

Forgotten for centuries, Balkanatolia is a speculative, ‘third’ Eurasian continent, wedged between Europe, Africa and Asia. The continent likely came into existence 50 million years ago and lost its independent identity, because of a major glaciation event 34 million years ago, that led to the formation of the Antarctic ice sheet and lowering sea levels, connecting Balkanatolia to Western Europe.

Why such a continent ought to have existed results from palaeontological evidence from centuries that posed a puzzle. During the Eocene Epoch (55 to 34 million years ago), Western Europe and Eastern Asia formed two distinct land masses with very different mammalian faunas: European forests were home to endemic fauna such as Palaeotheres (an extinct group distantly related to present-day horses, but more like today’s tapirs), whereas Asia had a more diverse fauna including the mammal families found today on both continents.

Western Europe was known to be colonised by Asian species around 34 million years ago, leading to a major renewal of vertebrate fauna and the extinction of its endemic mammals, a sudden event called the ‘Grande Coupure’. Surprisingly, fossils found in the Balkans point to the presence of Asian mammals in southern Europe long before the Grande Coupure. This was best explained by the existence of a landmass, prior to the Eocene, that was disconnected and a continent of its own.

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