Before There Were Tourists, Dinosaurs Strolled Scotland's Isle Of Skye

Dec 1, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2016 9:25 pm

Most people visit the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland for the beautiful scenery or historic castles or maybe the Talisker Distillery.

Not Stephen Brusatte. He goes to Skye for the dinosaurs. And he's pretty jazzed about what he and his team discovered on a recent field trip. "What we found is the biggest dinosaur site that's ever been found in Scotland," he says.

Brusatte is a paleontologist from the University of Edinburgh. As he describes in a paper published today in the Scottish Journal of Geology, the site is a stretch of land along the island's northern coast where there's a plethora of footprints made by the long-necked dinosaurs that lived there 170 million years ago.

He got a look at the area last April on a trip to Skye. A colleague had found a few fossils in a low-lying area near the coast, so they decided to spend a day in the area searching for more.

"It was getting late, it was about 7 o'clock at night," Brusatte recalls. "The light was going down, the tide was coming in. We're on this platform of rock that's jutting out into the Atlantic. Time to go home. And as we were packing up and walking out, we noticed these depressions in the rock that looked kind of like potholes about the size of trash can lids."

There were several of them, and they seemed to be arranged in a zig-zag pattern across the rocks.

"And the picture just came into focus that we were looking at the trackways of these giant dinosaurs," Brusatte says.

Giant is the word. Brusatte says the tracks were probably made by sauropod dinosaurs — beasts some 50 feet long and weighing 15 to 20 tons.

The tracks aren't the first giant dinosaur footprints found on Earth, but Brusatte says these are slightly unusual because they were found in an area that once was a lagoon.

"We just normally don't think of dinosaurs as animals that are frolicking around in the water like that," Brusatte says. "We think of them as these animals thundering across the land. But these dinosaurs here were very much at home near the water and even in the water."

Most people also likely don't tend to think of dinosaurs as hanging out in Scotland, but apparently that's wrong, too.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Before tourists crowded into the Isle of Skye in Scotland, there were dinosaurs. Researchers have uncovered fossilized bones there and now a trove of footprints made by giant beasts 170 million years ago. As NPR science correspondent Joe Palca reports, one of the most intriguing things about the discovery is where the footprints were found.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Most visitors go to the Isle of Skye for the scenery, or the hiking or maybe a tipple of Talisker straight from the distillery. Not paleontologist Stephen Brusatte. He goes in search of dinosaur fossils, and last April, he struck paleontological gold.

STEPHEN BRUSATTE: What we found is the biggest dinosaur site that's ever been found in Scotland.

PALCA: It was a huge collection of dinosaur footprints. Brusatte is an American who now works at the University of Edinburgh. I spoke with him by phone from his office there. Brusatte says he and his colleagues almost missed the footprints. They'd gone to a spot along the north coast of Skye where they'd gotten a tip there were some fossils to be found.

BRUSATTE: It was getting late. It was about 7 o'clock at night. The light was going down, the tide was coming in. You know, we're on this platform of rock that's jutting out into the Atlantic and - time to go home (laughter). As we were packing up and walking out, we noticed these depressions in the rock that looked kind of like potholes, and about the size of trash can lids.

PALCA: There were lots of these holes, and Brusatte says they were arranged in a kind of zigzag pattern.

BRUSATTE: And the picture just came into focus that we were looking at the trackways of these giant dinosaurs.

PALCA: And giant is the right word.

BRUSATTE: We're talking about things that were probably about 15 meters long or so, you know, 50 feet or so, and weighed 15 or 20 tons.

PALCA: Brusatte says when the footprints were made the area was a shallow lagoon - not the kind of place Brusatte expected to find these behemoths.

BRUSATTE: We just normally don't think of dinosaurs as animals that are frolicking around in the water like that. We think of them as these animals thundering across the land. But these dinosaurs here were very much at home near the water and even in the water.

PALCA: Of course now, knowing what they are, if you look the pictures of the zigzag holes in the rocks and are fond of big ideas, you can just imagine a group of giant sauropods dancing a reel by the water's edge. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.