Jurassic Skye: When dinosaurs roamed Scottish island

FROM the Isle of Skye to Wyoming sounds like the epic journey of Highland settlers to the New World. In fact, links between the two areas have been found to date back much further than the 19th-century waves of Scottish emigration – to 170 million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and, as suggested by recently found fossil evidence, the same type of dinosaur roamed the areas now known as Skye and Wyoming.

Skye’s emerging status as a palaeontological site of world importance is further consolidated by an article in the current issue of the Scottish Journal of Geology, which suggests that fossil footprints found on Skye and others across the Atlantic in Wyoming were left by the same type of dinosaur – or at least a closely related species – dating back to the mid-Jurassic period, when Scotland and the United States were both part of the same landmass.

According to preliminary research by Dr Neil Clark, the curator of palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, and Dr Michael Brett-Surman of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the fossil footprints of a smallish predatory dinosaur very like the raptor Coelophysis have been found both in the Sundance rock formations in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin and in the Valtos sandstone beds on Skye.

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Clark says: “The importance of this apparent link between Skye and Wyoming is that the Americans don’t actually have any dinosaur remains, apart from these footprints, from this particular period, the mid-Jurassic, whereas we have the bones of a number of different animals from that period here in Scotland. So, basically, we’re enabling the Americans to see what sort of dinosaurs were probably roaming about North America at the same time.

“The Americans do have the animal called Coelophysis, but their fossils of them are all from the lower Jurassic or upper Triassic periods, so they are a lot older than what we have in Skye, which is a representative of that group of dinosaurs which was still alive in the middle Jurassic. It seems to be associated with a particular type of footprint which also occurs in Wyoming at that particular time, so it’s quite possible they have a similar animal.”

While the footprints remain America’s only mid-Jurassic traces of the creature, Skye’s fossil beds from the same period have revealed a tooth and a tail bone, as well as the footprints. Coelophysis was a fast-running raptor, two to three metres long, which at one time was thought to have been cannibalistic, although, says Clark, the small bones found in the stomach of one fossilised specimen have since been identified as lizard bones, rather than those of the same species.

Skye is the only part of Scotland where conclusive dinosaur remains have been found so far, although remains of other Jurassic species, such as marine reptiles and the spiral shells of ammonites, have been found elsewhere, as have important pre-dinosaur reptile remains. This latest development underpins the island’s growing reputation as a palaeontological site of international importance, says Clark, who has done considerable work on the island’s fossils. Just last week, news broke of another important find – fossils of Jurassic turtles, discovered on the seashore of the island’s Strathaird Peninsula by a team from the Natural History Museum and University College London, and hailed as a “missing link” between ancient terrestrial turtles and their watergoing descendants.

“The discovery of the turtle fossils, which are showing a huge leap in evolution, just emphasises how important the middle-Jurassic of Skye is,” says Clark, who will be returning to the island in the New Year. “I think every year more finds will be made.”

The island’s first dinosaur traces were identified in 1982, when a large footprint of a middle-Jurassic dinosaur, similar to a Camptosaurus – a large herbivorous creature that walked on its hind legs – was discovered by Julian Andrews. There was a gap of a decade until further remains were found, with a Coelophysis-like bone and another fragment from a sauropod dinosaur (the long-necked group that walked on all four legs) from the middle Jurassic period, while 2002 proved a landmark year, with large and small dinosaur footprints found by Clark, local museum curator Dugald Ross, and Paul Booth.

But while American states such as Wyoming, Montana, Dakota and Utah are famous for their vast and prolific dinosaur fossil beds, Skye yields up its remains reluctantly.

The island’s Jurassic strata is largely capped with layers of hard volcanic rock, and is exposed only along the rugged cliffs and shores, so frustrated paleontologists must compete with high tides and winter storms to claim fossils as they work their way out of the rock through weathering.

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Most of the island’s Jurassic fossils have been found on the cliffs and shores of its Trotternish peninsula, where Dugald Ross, part-time curator of the Staffin Museum in Ellishadder, has seen the venture he started in the 1970s as a museum of local social history become home to the largest collection anywhere of Scots dinosaur fossils.

Ross, a crofter and builder when he’s not curating dinosaur remains, says potentially invaluable fossils can be destroyed by the elements if they are not found quickly: “The waves on these shores are absolutely massive when we get winds from the north or north-east. The fossils can be worn down in a matter of weeks.”

Also, he explains, in the middle-Jurassic period, what we now call Skye was a swampy, estuarine area, “and the problem is that animals that die in that kind of environment quickly get broken up by scavengers, so it’s quite rare to get a number of bones together here”.

Now, as the area receives increasing attention from scientific establishments from across the UK and beyond, Ross now has so much of Skye’s fragmented prehistoric past in storage that the old schoolhouse could do with an extension.

&149 For more details on the finds, log on to www.hunterian.gla.ac.uk/collections/museum/dinosaur/dinosaur.shtml



Skye’s – and Scotland’s – first dinosaur remains are found, the large footprint of a Middle Jurassic dinosaur similar to Camptosaurus, found by Julian Andrews.


First dinosaur bone found from the Lower Jurassic, of a Coelophysis-like dinosaur by Matthias Metz; also a bone fragment from a sauropod (long-necked) dinosaur from the Middle Jurassic.


The island’s first bone of a large herbivorous sauropod dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, is discovered by Doug Boyd, Jan Wolfe, Chris Mitchell and an unnamed collector.


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The first set of small Middle-Jurassic dinosaur footprints is found by Neil Clark, who also discovers the first tail bone of a Coelophysis-like dinosaur that year.


Colin Aitken discovers “elbow” bones of an armoured thyreophoran dinosaur.

2002 A large footprint is found on the beach at Staffin Bay by Cathie Booth, and further prints, thought to be of a carnivorous Megalosaurus , found by Paul Booth, Dugald Ross and Clark. The same year, small coelophysid footprints are found in Score Bay by Ross and Booth.


Clark finds a footprint since enshrined in the record books as the world’s smallest dinosaur footprint.


The first dinosaur tooth found on Skye, from a large, herbivorous sauropod Titanosaur, is reported by Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum.


First tooth of another sauropod, a Cetiosaurus, is found by Patrick Gavin. Also that year another tooth, from a carnivorous theropod dinosaur, is found by Clark.


Major discovery of Jurassic turtle fossils shows the first aquatic adaptation of turtle ancestors, published by Jrmy Anquetin. Also this year, Clark publishes the Skye-Wyoming link.