This Ancient Gemstone Found in the Galapagos Is Baffling Scientists

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This discovery could change how we think our planet works.

You've probably seen zircon. It's a colorful gemstone used in jewelry. It's also now the center of a mystery scientists are trying to unravel in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. This discovery could change our understanding of these famous islands ... Or even of the planet.

In addition to looking great in necklaces, zircon is really useful to geologists, who use the mineral to figure out exactly how ancient rocks are. Zircon has a touch of uranium in it, so scientists can measure how much the uranium has decayed to figure out how long it's been there.

In 2014, Dr. Yamirka Rojas-Agramonte, a geologist at Johannes Gutenberg-University, found something strange on a sandy beach in Ecuador: a piece of zircon.

"It is extremely unusual to find zircons in basalt rock formations, such as those that predominate throughout the Galapagos," Rojas-Agramonte explained.

But the real surprise came later, when the team sent their zircon to China to be analyzed. The zircon was much older than the scientists thought it would be on the islands. The Galapagos Islands were formed when liquid magma burst through cracks in the Earth's crust, eventually cooling and becoming land. You know — volcanoes. Much of the cooled lava on the islands is relatively young.

"Some of our newly discovered zircons are much older, however, than one would expect to find in young magmatic rock," explained Alfred Kröner, another researcher at Johannes Gutenberg-University added.

How did such an old crystal get into such new volcanic rock? The answer might literally go deeper than the Galapagos. It might mean that our understanding of the fiery liquid rock swirling under the surface of the Earth's crust is all wrong. Perhaps, deep within the planet, some strange recycling processes are going on.

The finding is so intriguing that scientists from South Africa, Spain, Australia and Ecuador are teaming up to figure it out over the next few years.

I like stories like these because they remind me that we are on the edge of science, not at the end of it. This puzzle about a crack in the Earth's surface is also a crack in scientists' understanding of how the world works.