170-Million-Year-Old Sauropod Dinosaur Tracks Discovered in Scotland
In the Scottish Highlands, a rugged, dramatic landscape defines the Isle of Skye. Its misty, green cliffs are home to creatures like puffins and red deer and its coastlines harbor mussels and grey seals. However, 170 million years ago, this part of the world was a subtropical environment like Florida, equipped with shallow lagoons and warm beaches. Because of a discovery announced Monday, we also know that the creatures that lived there were quite different than today’s puffins — long-necked, rounded sauropods and carnivorous theropods, the older cousins of the Tyrannosaurus rex.
These dinosaurs once lived on a part of Skye now called Rubha nam Brathairean, or Brother’s Point. Paleontologists from the University of Edinburgh, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Staffin Museum write in the Scottish Journal of Geology that they discovered 50 footprints belonging to these dinosaurs in the tidal area of this region, some as big as a car tire. This discovery adds to Scotland’s limited fossil record and provides evidence of dinos that lived during the Middle Jurassic — a rarity because few fossils dating to this period have been found.
“The more we look on the Isle of Sky, the more dinosaur footprints we find,” University of Edinburgh’s Steve Brusatte, Ph.D., who led the field team, explained in a statement released Monday. “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.”
This sighting marks the second time sauropod footprints have been found on Skye and the first theropod prints, a development that study co-author and University of Edinburgh graduate student Paige dePolo says makes for a “useful building block for us to continue fleshing out a picture of what dinosaurs were like on Skye in the Middle Jurassic.”
While footprints in Skye are typically difficult to study because of the impact of weathering and tidal conditions, dePolo and her team were able to encounter two trackways and many isolated footprints through the use of drone photography, on-site camera work, and tailored software later used to model the prints identified from the photos.
When the paleontologists examined the clearest prints, they could tell from the overall shape of the print’s outline, the shape and orientation of the toes, and the presence of claws that these massive impressions into the earth belonged to long-necked sauropods who walked on all fours and three-toed theropods who only walked with their hind legs. They estimate that the theropods weighed a ton and were about 16 meters long, while the sauropods were 49 feet long and six and a half feet tall, about the height of Houston Rockets point guard James Harden.
And their footprints were essentially found in plain sight — showing that, if you ever find yourself in the Isle of Sky, that puddle you’re stepping in could very well be a dinosaur footprint.