Scotland’s Jurassic Park
The largest dinosaurs ever to have walked the planet left their footprints some 170 million years ago – footprints that have recently been discovered in Scotland by University of Edinburgh researchers.
Early sauropods – a group of enormous long-necked and long-tailed herbivores – and razor-toothed theropods – the carnivorous cousins of the Tyrannosaurus rex – lived by a lagoon on the remote island hideaway of the Isle of Skye, according to one of the country’s leading palaeontologists.
“The more we look on Skye, the more dinosaur footprints we find,” says Dr Steve Brusatte from the University’s School of Geosciences. “This new site records two different types of dinosaur: long-necked cousins of the Brontosaurus, and sharp-clawed footprints made by the older meat-eating cousins of the T. rex. They hung around a shallow lagoon, back when Scotland was much warmer and dinosaurs were beginning their march to global dominance.”
Researchers had to measure, photograph and analyse about 50 footprints in a tidal area at Brothers’ Point – Rubha nam Brathairean – a headland on Skye’s Trotternish peninsula, which made access difficult. But despite the tricky conditions – not to mention the impact of weathering and changes to the landscape – members of the team were able to identify two separate tracks and many isolated footprints.
A sitemap was made using photographs taken by drones while additional images were obtained by paired cameras and software tailored to model the prints.
“This site is a useful building block for us to continue fleshing out a picture of what dinosaurs were like on Skye in the Middle Jurassic,” says Dr Brusatte. “Analysis of the clearest prints – including the overall shape of the track outline, the shape and orientation of the toes, and the presence of claws – enabled us to ascribe them to sauropods and theropods. They are crucial fossils that provide rare and important insight into the Middle Jurassic era – a period about which relatively little is known.”
Dr Brusatte also says the sauropods responsible for some of the tracks were “the first species of truly colossal sauropods that lived on Earth.”
“They were probably more than 50 feet long and weighed more than 10 tons,” he explains.
The study was led by Paige dePolo, a student on the University’s Research masters programme in Palaeontology and Geobiology (a programme founded two years ago by Dr Brusatte and Professor Rachel Wood), who took on the project as part of her degree.
“These fossils are very rare in rocks from the Middle Jurassic” she says. “That’s frustrating because this epoch was an important time but it also underlines the importance of this discovery, and offers us so many clues to how dinosaurs lived in this era.”
“It’s hard to say exactly why these dinosaurs were in the lagoon – maybe there was abundant food there, or maybe it was a safe place to hide from predators – but we seem to be finding more and more footprints of lagoon-dwelling dinosaurs these days, which can only develop our understanding of them.”
Paige also believes that this new discovery changes current understanding of the history of certain dinosaur species.
“It was found in rocks that were slightly older than those previously found at Duntulm on the island,” she says. “It demonstrates the presence of sauropods in this part of the world through a longer timescale than previously known.”
The study, carried out by the University of Edinburgh, Staffin Museum and Chinese Academy of Sciences, was published in the Scottish Journal of Geology.
It was supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society, and subsidiary funding from the Association of Women Geologists, Derek and Maureen Moss, Edinburgh Zoo and Edinburgh Geological Society.
Dr Brusatte and his team are now looking for further funding to continue their fieldwork on Skye, and are also keen to hear from anyone who is interested in helping to develop their research. Future expeditions are likely to yield more exciting finds, helping to strengthen the emerging picture of Middle Jurassic Skye.
Dr Brusatte is also about to share his knowledge and expertise with a wider audience with the release of his adult pop science book ‘The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs’ on 3 May.
The book tells the real story of how dinosaurs rose to dominate the planet, and also introduces us to modern day dinosaur hunters and gives an insight into what it’s like to be a palaeontologist.
“At a time when humans have existed for less than 200,000 years and we are already talking about planetary extinction,” says Dr Brusatte, “I want this book to be a timely reminder of what humans can learn from the magnificent creatures who ruled the earth before us.”
If you would like to find out more about Dr Steve Brusatte’s work and further opportunities for involvement, please contact Sanne Dijkstra-Downie at Development and Alumni on +44 (0)131 650 6312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.