Dinosaur Tracks Preserved on Scottish Island

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
August 29, 2002
Around 160 million years ago, a small group of large meat-eating
dinosaurs walked along the sandy shore of a lake on Scotland's Isle of
Skye, leaving their footprints in the sand.

The tracks are the largest and the youngest dinosaur footprints ever found in Scotland. A research team headed by Neil Clark, a paleontologist at the University of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum, is at the site now, looking for more tracks and making molds of the 15 that have been uncovered.

The find is particularly significant because the tracks still lie in the rock strata in which they were formed.

"Tracks we've found before were all in loose boulders that had fallen down from the cliffs onto the beach," said Clark. "Finding them in their original horizon helps us define exactly how old they are."

Middle Jurassic Dinosaurs

Cathie Booth, a Skye resident, discovered the first track on a loose sandstone rock while walking her dog on the beach. Fourteen more tracks have since been found.

Each footprint shows three huge toes, with the middle toe the longest. Judging from the size of the tracks, some of which are close to 20 inches (50 centimeters) long, the dinosaurs walked on two feet and probably measured about 33 feet (10 meters) from head to tail. The toes are very narrow, suggesting that the animal was a carnivore. Plant eating dinosaurs generally have toes that are more spatulate (spread out).

Dinosaur remains from the lower end of the Middle Jurassic—about 167 to 160 million years ago—are rare worldwide; there are only one or two places in the U.S. where remains of this age can be found, said Clark. He thinks the tracks may have been made by a Megalosaurus.

"It's impossible to be 100 percent sure unless we follow the traffic and find a dead dinosaur at the end," he said. "But the Megalosuarus was the only large meat-eating animal known at the time."

While today's Isle of Skye is cold and frequently battered by storms from the sea, 160 million years ago it was probably humid and swampy, said Clark.

Scotland's Jurassic Isle

The Isle of Skye is known as Scotland's Jurassic Island because of the large number of dinosaur remains found there, and Clark is hoping the Skye beach will tell a larger story.

During the Middle Jurassic, which extends from roughly 180 to 160 million years ago, the supercontinent Pangaea began to separate. Skye was separated from Africa and Europe at the time by several huge mountain ranges, which would present a barrier to the dinosaurs. The same kinds of dinosaurs found in Skye may have roamed around in North America, he said.

Clark plans to return this winter to search for more tracks. In July over the course of about six days, winds pushed drifting sand over the tracks. The 15 discovered thus far have all been at the shallow end of the beach, buried under about five feet (1.5 meters) of sand. Clark expects a good winter storm to move the sand again, perhaps revealing more tracks.

"We have people here who will be watching, walking their dogs, and will keep us informed on what's happening," he said.

In the meantime, he and his team are taking molds of the footprints currently exposed, not excavating them.

"We're leaving them here so people can look at them and see them as they were," he said.

More National Geographic News stories on dinosaurs:
Fossil of Dog-Size Horned Dinosaur Unearthed in China
Tyrannosaurus rex Was a Slowpoke
Researchers Rethink Dinosaur Die Off Scenario
Researchers Melt Polar Dinosaur Mysteries
Scientist's Finds Spur New Thinking on Dino Evolution
Dino-Era Vomit Fossil Found in England
Study Paints New Picture of Dinosaur's Nose
Skeleton of New Dinosaur "Titan" Found in Madagascar
"Tidal Giant" Roamed Coastal Swamps of Ancient Africa
"Feathered" Fossil Bolsters Changing Image of Dinosaurs
Oddly Angled Teeth Make Masiakasaurus Stick Out

Additional dinosaur resources from National Geographic:
Paul Sereno: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Dinosaur Hunter
Wanted: Albertosaurus
Dinosaur Eggs
Destinations: Dinosaur National Monument

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