Stegosaurus once roamed the Isle of Skye 170 million years ago

Stegosaurs roamed the Isle of Skye 170 million years ago: Scientists find footprints as big as watermelons left by the 30ft dinosaurs in Scotland

  • The Isle of Skye is one of the most important places for middle Jurassic fossils
  • It’s the earliest location of the major stegosaur dinosaur group in the world 
  • Researchers say the Skye stegosaur species is related to larger, later stegosaurs

Palaeontologists have discovered stegosaur footprints on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, proving the 30ft long herbivorous dinosaurs once roamed the island.

The previously undiscovered dinosaur tracks were found on the north-east coast of the island after the spring storms of 2017 moved boulders along the beach.

A team from the University of Edinburgh discovered a short sequence of distinctive, oval footprints left by a stegosaur species 170 million years ago.

The discovery means the site at Brothers’ Point on Skye is now one of the oldest-known fossil records of this major dinosaur group found anywhere in the world.

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This artist impression gives an insight into what the dinosaur dominated world of the Isle of Skye would have been like 170 million years ago including both two and four leg species of dinosaur with stegosaurs on the left and middle – as seen by the spiked back plates

Three toed tracks were discovered by palaeontologists on the Isle of Skye after spring storms moved boulders on the beach 

At the time the giant herbivorous dinosaurs roamed the land that now makes up the Isle of Skye the island was actually a mudflat on the edge of a shallow lagoon.

WHAT ARE STEGOSAURS?  

 ‘Most known stegosaurs date from far later in the Jurassic period but some species may have lived as long ago as 168 million years ago. 

They are large herbivores that were heavily armoured. 

They are known for their iconic and famed bony plates which line their back. 

The armoured defence was made from bone and the plates allowed them to fend off predators.  

The footprints discovered by the scientists were thought to have been left by a young animal or small-bodied member of the stegosaurus family.

It reveals dinosaurs on Skye – ‘one of the best places in the world’ for examining dinosaur evolution – were more diverse than previously thought.

‘The tracks are located on flat rocky surfaces near the beach, so they are only exposed at low tide. The tide laps across them, back and forth, every day,’ University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte said.

Three-toed footprints with sharp claws appear to have been made by a jeep-sized two-legged carnivorous dinosaur from a group called theropods.

Bigger three-toed footprints with blunter toes may have been left by large-bodied two-legged plant-eaters called ornithopods or perhaps by a large theropod.

The most intriguing tracks appear to have been made by an early member of a group of heavily built, four-legged plant-eaters called stegosaurs that boasted large bony plates along the neck and back, and wielded a menacing spiked tail. 

The discovery means the site at Brothers’ Point on Skye is now one of the oldest-known fossil records of this major dinosaur group found anywhere in the world

The most famous member of this group was Stegosaurus, which inhabited western North America about 150 million years ago and reached about 30 feet long.

The tracks represent some of the oldest evidence anywhere of a stegosaur, according to University of Edinburgh doctoral student Paige dePolo, lead author.

‘I suspect this stegosaur was about the size of a cow, which is fairly small for a stegosaur,’ she said.

‘Whether that’s because it’s a primitive, smaller species or a juvenile of a bigger species, we’re not sure,’ added Brusatte, who led the research field team.

‘These new track sites help us get a better sense of the variety of dinosaurs that lived near the coast of Skye during the middle Jurassic,’ said dePolo.

University of Edinburgh scientists Steve Brusatte and Paige dePolo pose at a dinosaur footprint site on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. They say it proves Skye had a more diverse dinosaur population than originally thought

Palaeontologists have discovered signs stegosaurs once roamed on the isle of Skye through previously undiscovered dinosaur tracks. This artist impression shows what the then mudflat landscape may have been like with a stegosaur on the right

Pictured, a complete stegosaurus fossil on display at the Natural History Museum. Researchers named the new species Adratiklit boulahfa, meaning ‘mountain lizard’ in the Berber language. The species thought to have roamed Skye was smaller and earlier in its evolution

WHY IS THE MIDDLE JURASSIC SO IMPORTANT? 

The Middle Jurassic Period is a time of major evolutionary diversification in many dinosaur groups.

It lasted from about 174 to 163 million years ago and is one of the key periods in the evolution of life on Earth. 

However, dinosaur fossils from this time period are generally rare. 

The Isle of Skye in Scotland is an exception, yielding body and trace fossils of diverse Middle Jurassic ecosystems.

Discoveries on the island have provided scientists with vital clues about the early evolution of major dinosaur groups, including huge, long-necked sauropods and fierce, meat-eating cousins of Tyrannosaurus rex.

‘We knew there were giant long-necked sauropods and Jeep-sized carnivores but we can now add plate-backed stegosaurs to that roster and maybe even primitive cousins of the duck-billed dinosaurs, too,’ said Brusatte.

‘These discoveries are making Skye one of the best places in the world for understanding dinosaur evolution in the middle Jurassic.

‘We know that dinosaurs were diversifying with a frenzy in the Middle Jurassic, but there are few fossil sites of this age anywhere in the world.

‘This is a snapshot at the beginning of the era of dinosaur dominance, the dinosaur empire.’

The study also involved scientists from National Museums Scotland, University of Glasgow, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and the Staffin Museum. 

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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