“Dinosaur Disco” Discovered in Scotland’s Largest Fossil Site Yet

December 4, 2015 | Gillian Burrell

Artist's impression of Mid-Jurassic sauropods wading in a lagoon
Photo credit: Jon Hoad/University of Edinburgh

The behemoths of the Mid-Jurassic Era left behind hundreds of massive footprints.

A fossil expedition led by a team from the University of Edinburgh has unearthed a rare and astounding discovery on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. As published recently in the Scottish Journal of Geology, hundreds of footprints made by sauropods were discovered in what is Scotland’s most extensive fossil site to date.

Sauropods lived about 170 million years ago during the Middle Jurassic period and were some of the largest animals to ever walk the planet. Among the hundreds of footprints described at the fossil site, some of the markings were made by feet measuring 27 ½ inches (70 centimeters) in length! Based on other sauropod fossils, paleontologists estimate that the long-necked dinosaurs could grow to be more than 50 feet in length and weigh more than 10 tons!

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What is truly remarkable about the site is that it fills in a missing gap in our fossil record. The Mid-Jurassic epoch is a bit of a dark age to us because fossils from that era are so rare. Scotland is one of the few places around the world where Mid-Jurassic fossils have been found, and our fossils of Scottish sauropods were limited to a few broken teeth and bones. Until now.

Photographs of sauropod footprints on the Isle of Skye
Dinosaur tracks from the new Skye tracksite. Photo credit: S. L. Brusatte et al.

What the paleontologists discovered was not just a single set of sauropod prints, but a proven stomping ground for the giant vegetarians. Hundreds of tracks were found in multiple layers of stone, indicating that sauropods flocked to the place for generation after generation.

“The new tracksite from Skye is one the most remarkable dinosaur discoveries ever made in Scotland,” said Dr. Steve Brusatte, the paleontologist who led the study. “There are so many tracks crossing each other that it looks like a dinosaur disco preserved in stone.”

The finding actually stumped researchers because the tracks were made in what would have then been a shallow, salt water lagoon.

Sauropods were previously thought to be purely land-dwellers, but the Isle of Skye site reveals that they spent a significant part of their day wading in shallow, coastal waters. The authors speculate that the lagoon could have hosted more nutritious food than the surrounding areas, or maybe a dip in the water saved the dinosaurs from the tropical heat of the Mid-Jurassic.

The footprints found at this site mark a huge discovery for paleontologists, not just because they give us insight into the life of a sauropod, but also because of the sauropod’s iconic relatives.

During the Mid-Jurassic, some of the larger sauropod species were evolving and diversifying into what we now call Brontosaurus and Diplodocus, the behemoths of the Late Jurassic. By understanding more about the lifestyle of a sauropod, we can piece together the evolution of all long-necked dinosaurs during this crucial time in their evolution.

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