Evolution of the global network of tectonic plates 200 million years ago to present

This animation shows the tesselation of the surface of the Earth over the last 200 million years as an evolving "jigsaw puzzle" of plates. Tectonic plates, the pieces of Earth's broken outer shell, are all unequal in size. Today seven plates, including the Pacific Ocean and Africa as the largest plates, account for 94% of the surface while the remaining 6% are occupied by a multitude of small plates, such as Iberia and the Philippine Plate.


The history of evolving plates since 200 Myr ago is always characterised by a small number of very large plates and a set of smaller plates, but we know less and less about these small plates as we go back into deep time. Note especially the evolution of small plates northeast Australia. Tiny plates are of particular interest to Australia because much of the continental crust underlying Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland is made up of fragments of ancient volcanic arcs and segments of tiny “back-arc” plates that existed hundreds of millions of years ago (largely before 200 Myr ago). To obtain insights into the history of these now destroyed plates geodynamic simulations are used to understand the physics underlying the formation and destruction of small plates (see companion animation by Claire Mallard). It’s these parts of the crust that host mineral deposits including copper and gold, associated with the dynamic tectonic subduction environments in which these small plates form. Animation produced by Dietmar Müller using the GPlates software, based on the global tectonic model published here:

Müller, R. D, Seton, M., Zahirovic, S., Williams, S.E., Matthews, K.J., Wright, N.M., Shephard, G.E., Maloney, K.Y., Barnett-Moore, N., Hosseinpour, M., Bower, D.J., Cannon, J., 2016, Ocean basin evolution and global-scale plate reorganization events since Pangea breakup, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science, Vol 44, 107-138.

View other EarthByte animations on our YouTube channel