Massive dinosaur footprints on Scottish coast shed light on mysterious era

3 Apr 2018

The Old Man of Storr at dawn, Isle of Skye. Image: Shaun Barr/Shutterstock

Researchers have been analysing dinosaur footprints recently discovered on the Isle of Skye.

Dozens of giant dinosaur footprints, which researchers say are 170m years old, have been uncovered off the coast of what is now the Isle of Skye.

The majority of the prints were made by long-necked sauropods, which stood up to two metres tall, and theropods, the older cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Future Human

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Staffin Museum and the Chinese Academy of Sciences carried out the extensive study, publishing the findings in the Scottish Journal of Geology.

Scientists identified two trackways as well as many isolated footprints, which were initially difficult to study due to tidal conditions, weathering and landscape changes.

Sauropod footprint

Sauropod footprint. Image: Dr Steve Brusatte

The mystery of the Middle Jurassic period

This is the second set of footprints found on Skye, with the first discovery made in 2015. The current discovery is considered globally important, as there is little evidence of the Middle Jurassic period, with very few known fossil sites from the era in existence.

The Middle Jurassic period – an era spanning 164m to 174m years ago – had previously been shrouded in mystery but the Skye discovery is bringing new information about this timeframe to light.

Approximately 170m years ago, shortly before the supercontinent Pangaea began to break up, the land that is now the Isle of Skye was a component of a smaller subtropical island far closer to the equator, with an array of lagoons and beaches.

50 footprints uncovered

About 50 footprints were studied in a tidal area at Brother’s Point – Rubha nam Brathairean – a headland on Skye’s Trotternish peninsula.

The largest prints were left by a sauropod, at 70cm across, while the largest therapod track was approximately 50cm in diameter.

Drone photos were used to create a comprehensive sitemap of the tracksite, while other images were collected using software and a paired set of cameras to create accurate models of the prints.

Paige dePolo, who led the study, said: “This tracksite is the second discovery of sauropod footprints on Skye. It was found in rocks that were slightly older than those previously found at Duntulm on the island, and demonstrates the presence of sauropods in this part of the world through a longer timescale than previously known.

“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.”

A pivotal discovery

Study co-author Dr Steve Brusatte said: “The Middle Jurassic was a pretty important time. It was some time around then that the first birds took to the sky, the first tyrannosaurs were evolving [and] the first really colossal sauropods were getting their start.”

He added: “This new site records two different types of dinosaurs – long-necked cousins of Brontosaurus and sharp-toothed cousins of T-Rex – hanging around a shallow lagoon, back when Scotland was much warmer and dinosaurs were beginning their march to global dominance.”

According to the research paper, the discovery “strengthens the inference, originally based on a previously discovered locality near Duntulm Castle (Duntulm Formation) in northern Skye, that sauropods habitually spent time in lagoons during the Middle Jurassic”.

The Old Man of Storr at dawn, Isle of Skye. Image: Shaun Barr/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects