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The Isle of Skye was a middle Jurassic dinosaur hotspot © Jon Hoad

The Isle of Skye was a Middle-Jurassic dinosaur hotspot

Published: 14th March, 2020 at 08:00
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Among the preserved footprints revealed by storm activity, palaeontologists have found some of the oldest evidence of large-bodied herbivorous dinosaurs.

  • The Isle of Skye, off the northwest coast of Scotland, was home to a wide variety of dinosaurs in the Middle Jurassic Period.
  • Palaeontologists at the University of Edinburgh discovered around 50 preserved footprints in mud flats revealed by storm activity.
  • They believe the tracks include some of the oldest evidence of large-bodied herbivorous dinosaurs.

The Middle Jurassic Period, which stretched from about 175 million years ago to about 160 million years ago, was a time of major evolutionary diversification in many dinosaur groups, but dinosaur fossils from this time period are generally rare.

However, new excavations are proving the Isle of Skye to be a tantalising exception. New areas of mudflats unearthed by storm activity along the island’s coastline are turning out to be a treasure trove of fossilised dinosaur footprints.

Read more about dinosaurs:

In a paper published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, Paige dePolo and Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh describe two recently discovered fossil sites containing around 50 preserved dinosaur footprints. These include the first record on the Isle of Skye of a track known as a Deltapodus track most likely created by a stegosaurian or plate-backed dinosaur.

Dr Steve Brusatte (left) and Paige dePolo analysed dinosaur tracks on the island © University of Edinburgh/PA
Dr Steve Brusatte (left) and Paige dePolo analysed dinosaur tracks on the island © University of Edinburgh/PA

"These new tracksites help us get a better sense of the variety of dinosaurs that lived near the coast of Skye during the Middle Jurassic than what we can glean from the island's body fossil record,” said the study’s lead author dePolo. “In particular, Deltapodus tracks give good evidence that stegosaurs lived on Skye at this time."

Also among the tracks are three-toed footprints of multiple sizes of early carnivorous dinosaurs and a series of other large tracks that have been tentatively identified as being some of the oldest evidence of large-bodied herbivorous dinosaurs.

“These new tracksites give us a much clearer picture of the dinosaurs that lived in Scotland 170 million years ago,” said Brusatte, the study’s co-author. "We knew there were giant long-necked sauropods and jeep-sized carnivores, but we can now add plate-backed stegosaurs to that roster, and maybe even primitive cousins of the duck-billed dinosaurs too.

“These discoveries are making Skye one of the best places in the world for understanding dinosaur evolution in the Middle Jurassic.”

A dinosaur track on Skye © University of Edinburgh/PA
A dinosaur track on Skye © University of Edinburgh/PA

These two sites add to the known diversity of what was a thriving ecosystem of Middle Jurassic dinosaurs in northern Scotland and reflect the importance of footprints as a source of information supplemental to body fossils, the researchers say.

Reader Q&A: If the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct, could they have developed a civilised society?

Asked by: Henry Sykes, via email

The asteroid strike that killed off all dinosaurs (except for birds) took place 66 million years ago. We know that many species of dinosaur were still thriving at that time.

These included small, fast, deadly ‘raptors’ such as Velociraptor, which had big brains and keen senses, and were probably as smart as dogs and cats are today.

If they didn’t die, but instead kept evolving, they may have developed even bigger brains and keener senses. And given millions of years of evolution, perhaps they would have taken the path of primates, eventually developing tool use, sophisticated communication, and even complex societies.

We’ll never know, but it’s theoretically possible!

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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