Fantastic Beasts of the “Misty Isle” – Welcome to Jurassic Skye!

Artwork collage focusing on a drawing of Megalosaurus dinosaurs running on the shores of the Jurassic Isle of Skye. Image: NaturphilosophieWelcome to Scotland’s Jurassic Park

Welcome to Jurassic Skye!  While dinosaurs might be long dead and no threat to puny humans, the rich fossil record of the Scottish island of Skye – the “Misty Isle” – has provided palaeontologists with important clues to the lives of prehistoric predators and their preys. 

Scotland has a remarkably rich geodiversity that spans nearly 3 billion years of Earth’s history.

Part of ‘Earth heritage’ is the record of the development and evolution of life on Earth in the form of fossils.  They are found amongst other places, in rivers and streams, coastal cliffs and quarries, and also preserved in museums and private collections.

The Isle of Skye (Eilean a’ Cheò in Gaelic) has been dubbed “Dinosaur Isle“, because of its rich heritage of fossils – many of which date from the Jurassic period.  The Scottish island is one of the very few places in the World where Middle Jurassic dinosaurs can be found – or at least, their fossilised remains.

 

A photograph showing Dugald Ross and "Dougie the dinosaur" - the sauropod femur bone discovered by Dugald on the Isle of Skye.
Mr Dugald Ross of the Staffin Museum with part of the sauropod femur in 1994, Isle of Skye, Scotland. Source: University of Glasgow

‘Dougie the Dinosaur’

The island of Skye is the best place in Scotland to find Jurassic fossils.  Here you can find ammonites, belemnites, shark teeth, molluscs, and fossil wood, as well as reptile remains, along some of the most outstanding coastal areas in the World.

Fossils have been collected and documented on the Isle of Skye for many years.  Fantastic discoveries have been made.

In 1994, Scotland’s first dinosaurs hit the press.

Part of a theropod tibia was discovered on the Isle of Skye in 1992.  It is now at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, but the discovery was not released to the press until 1995.

The sauropod was nicknamed ‘Dougie the Dinosaur’.

 

Spotlight on the Theropods

 

A schematic diagram showing theropod diversification from dinosaurs to birds.Theropods are a group of saurischian dinosaurs.  According to Wikipedia, they were ancestrally carnivorous, though a number of theropod groups evolved to be

  • herbivores,

  • omnivores,

  • piscivores, and

  • insectivores.

 

Theropods first appeared during the Carnian age of the late Triassic period.  They roamed planet Earth 231.4 million years ago (Ma) and included the sole large terrestrial carnivores from the Early Jurassic until at least the close of the Cretaceous, about 66 Ma.

In the Jurassic, birds evolved from small specialized coelurosaurian theropods, and are today represented by 10,000 living species.

 

A map showing the structural geology of the island of Skye, in northern Scotland.
A Structural Geology Map of Skye, Scotland Source: Wikipedia

Geological Skye

Skye is the largest and most northerly major island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

The island’s peninsulas radiate from a mountainous centre dominated by the Cuillin hills, the rocky slopes of which provide some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the country.  The Cuillin were carved by the glaciers of the last ice age just 11,000 years ago.

Skye’s geology is highly variable.  The Scottish island’s landscape reflects changes in the underlying nature of the rocks.

Their ages range from the Archaean through to the Quaternary.

A wide variety of rock types are exposed on the island:

  • sedimentary,

  • metamorphic and

  • igneous.

 

Although much of the island is composed of fossil-free basalt rocks, there are exposures of sedimentary beds at several locations.

Mesozoic

Sedimentary bedrocks of Mesozoic age underlie most parts of the island north of the Sleat Peninsula, hidden beneath Palaeogene volcanic rocks over most of this area, being exposed only on the eastern and northern coasts of the Trotternish peninsula, on the Strathaird peninsula and between the Red Hills and Sleat.


Triassic

Triassic rocks of the Stornoway Formation are found near Broadford, a sequence of sandstones and conglomerates deposited by rivers, overlain by the lower Jurassic Lias Group with the

  • Broadford Beds at the base, passing up into the Pabay Shale Formation,
  • Scalpay Sandstone Formation,
  • Portree Shale Formation and
  • Raasay Ironstone Formation.

 

The sequence continues with the

Lower to Middle Jurassic Skye

Bearreraig Sandstone Formation


Middle Jurassic Skye

Great Estuarine Group (Cullaidh Shale Formation, Elgol Sandstone Formation, Lealt Shale Formation, Valtos Sandstone Formation, Duntulm Formation, Kilmaluag Formation and Skudiburgh Formation)


Upper Jurassic Skye

Staffin Shale Formation.


Cretaceous

The only Cretaceous unit exposed on Skye is the Strathaird Limestone Formation, thought to be either Turonian or Campanian in age, which lies unconformably on the Jurassic and is overlain unconformably by Palaeocene lavas.


Eocene

During the Paleocene Epoch to the Early Eocene, Skye formed one of the main volcanic centres of the North Atlantic Igneous Province.  Gently dipping lavas from volcanoes covered most of northern Skye, giving a stepped trap type landscape.

The dominant material is basalt – a lava type, with subsidiary hawaiite and mugearite derived from silica-poor magma, and minor amounts of trachyte from a  silica-rich magma.

Part of the magma chambers for the volcanoes are exposed at the surface as major intrusions of gabbro and granite.  These coarse-grained igneous rocks are relatively resistant to erosion and now form the Cuillin hills.

 

A map showing the geology of Skye and the Caledonian deformation limit.
Skye and the Caledonian Deformation Limit

The Black and Red Cuillins

The peaks of the Black Cuillin are mainly composed of gabbro – a very rough black igneous rock, formed about 60 millions years ago.  Their summits are bare rock, which erodes to form characteristically jagged outlines, with steep cliffs, deep cut corries and gullies, due to the many minor intrusions, such as dykes and cone sheets that cut the gabbro.

The Red Cuillin are lower and less rocky.  Mainly formed of granite – a rock paler than the gabbro with a somewhat reddish tinge.  The Red Cuillin Hills also have a more rounded topography.  There, the granite has weathered into more rounded hills, with vegetation cover to summit level and long scree slopes on their flanks.

An aerial photograph showing Kilt Rock and the Mealt Waterfall on the island of Skye in northern Scotland.
Kilt Rock and the Mealt Waterfall, Isle of Skye, Scotland Source: Skyguide

All pre-Quaternary rock types on the island are affected by a major swarm of dykes, which forms part of the North Britain Palaeogene Dyke Suite.  Although most of the dykes on Skye are basaltic in composition, but a minority are trachytic.

The dominant trend of the dykes is northwest-southeast although they are locally in part radial near the old volcanic centre.

On the Trotternish peninsula, mafic magma was intruded along the bedding planes of the Jurassic sedimentary rocks beneath the lavas to form sills up to 90-metre thick.  They commonly display columnar jointing, such as in the upper part of the Kilt Rock at Staffin.

 

A sample of rock featuring fossils of Ludwigia obtusiformis and belemnites from Jurassic Skye.
Ludwigia obtusiformis and Belemnites, Jurassic Age, Inferior Oolite, Murchisonae Zone, Bearreraig Bay, Skye, Scotland, UK

Rich in Fossils

Around the rugged coasts, these sedimentary layers exposures are rich in fossils, but many of them are difficult to reach.  However, the most attractive sites of Skye also happen to be the ones with evidence of dinosaurs.

For the casual fossil seeker, two of the best places to find them are very easy to get to.  They are Staffin and Duntulm in the north of the island.

The beaches of Bearreraig Bay and Elgol are also among the best spots on the island to find fossils.

 

A photograph showing Dugald Ross looking at the dinosaur footprint that was found at Ellishadder, Staffin on Skye.
Dugald Ross and the dinosaur footprint at Ellishadder, Staffin, Skye.

Staffin Museum

The largest collection of Scottish dinosaur material can be found on the Island’s Staffin Museum at Ellishadder.  There you can see a copy of the first dinosaur remains to be found on the island from 1982, as well as the first bone from 1991 and much more.

Staffin Museum has the world’s smallest dinosaur footprint in its fossil collection.  A rocky shore leads east to a slipway at An Corran in Staffin on Skye.  It is here that a resident found a slab bearing a dinosaur track, probably made by a small ornithopod.

 

A photograph showing the famous dinosaur footprint impressions at An Corran, Staffin on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
In 2002, a storm in Skye uncovered the now famous dinosaur foot prints.

An Corran

Subsequent to this discovery, experts found more dinosaur prints of up to 50 cm, the largest ever found in Scotland.  The prints were made by a creature similar to Megalosaurus.

At about 160 million years old, these fossils are the youngest dinosaur remains to be found in Scotland.

In 2002, the dinosaur footprints were uncovered by summer storms at An Corran in Staffin.  There.  On the beach, they can be seen.

The prints were left by a family of dinosaurs that walked across the sand.  These are very old footprints from around 165 million years ago.

 

Duntulm, Trotternish

At low tide, dinosaurs footprints can also be spotted near Duntulm Castle in Trotternish, in the north of the Jurassic island of Skye.  Reportedly, the fossil hunters noticed the tracks one day in April 2015, as the tide turned and the Sun went down on the edge of the island where the remains of Duntulm castle stand in the distance.

As the tide came in, the researchers saw pits in a huge slab of rock about 30-metre long that is submerged at high tide and covered with seaweed at some times of year.

 

A photograph showing the early turtle fossils found at Cladach a'Ghlinne on the island of Skye, off the coast of Scotland.
The 164 million-year-old fossils of early turtles were found on a beach at Cladach a’Ghlinne, on the Strathaird peninsula in southern Skye.  Source: BBC  Image: J. Anquetin

Early Turtles

Fossil finds on the island of Skye have included the earliest turtles known to have lived in water.

Eight years ago, scientists revealed their discovery of Eileanchelys waldmani, which translates as “the turtle from the island”, which was reported in the Royal Society journals in 2008.

An artist's impression of Odontochelys Semitestacea - an ancient toothed turtle with a half shell dating from the Late Triassic period.
Odontochelys semitestacea $ ($meaning “toothed turtle with a half-shell”$ )$ is a Late Triassic relative of the turtles.

The 164 million-year-old reptile fossils were found embedded in a block of rock on a beach at the bay of Cladach a’Ghlinne, on the Strathaird peninsula in southern Skye.

The new species of Eileanchelys waldmani, which translates as “the turtle from the island”, formed a missing link between ancient terrestrial turtles and their modern, aquatic descendants.

The fossils include more than 100 marks left by a lizard called Isochirotherium – also known as the hand-beast – 270 million years ago.

 

And the Storr Lochs Monster…

An artist impression of the Storr Lochs Monster by Todd Marshall.
The Storr Lochs creature comes from a family of animals called ichthyosaurs.  Source: BBC

Named the Storr Lochs Monster, the marine reptile fossil was found in 1966.  The fossil was discovered on a beach near SSE’s Storr Lochs Power Station by the facility’s manager, Norrie Gillies.

The unique fossil was extracted from the rock that encased it for millions of years.

Fifty years on, palaeontologists from the University of Edinburgh and National Museums Scotland are preparing for a detailed study of the ancient creature.

The Storr Lochs monster comes from a family of animals called ichthyosaurs.  The ancient reptiles grew to about 4 metres (13 ft) in length and had long, pointed heads filled with hundreds of cone-shaped teeth, which they used to feed on fish and squid.

The study will help inform our understanding of how ichthyosaurs evolved during the Middle Jurassic Period – a geological period saw the appearance of some of the first mammals, birds and reptiles such as snakes.

Once the analysis of the fossil is complete, the public will have the chance to view it at a number of locations in Scotland.

 

A photograph of Bearreraig Bay in Summer 2012.
Bearreraig Bay (Summer 2012)

Reckless Hunters

Although to the untrained eye, the dinosaurs of Eilean a’ Cheò (Isle of Skye) may not exactly appear to be chewing the scenery, the fossils have come under threat from rogue collectors.

In 2011, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) said rock was dug away from cliffs near Bearreraig Bay in an apparent organised search for valuable specimens.  Located north of Portree on Skye, Bearreraig Bay,  is within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The Bearreraig Bay dig had been done without the landowner’s permission or the consent of SNH, which manages the SSSI.  Tonnes of rock were disturbed at this Jurassic site in what was described as one of Scotland’s most reckless acts of fossil collecting.

Speeding up the process of coastal erosion by large-scale removal of rock from the shoreline as in this case is both irresponsible and illegal.  It is also potentially dangerous to people, as the cliff faces may become undermined and destabilised.

A crowbar was suspected to have been used to prise away some of the rock.

Fossil-rich rock was damaged at the Bearreraig Bay site.  However, permission to remove the material from the SSSI was not sought from SNH, as it would have been needed.

Valtos is a place on Skye where famous dinosaur footprints were discovered.  As well as these amazing trace fossils, the Bathonian Upper Jurassic sedimentary rocks have yielded dinosaur bones in the past, and some are on display in the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow.

Palaeontologists have used dinosaur footprints found at Valtos to help explain what went on at the Dino Stampede National Monument in central Queensland in Australia – a prehistoric event where a group of dinosaurs is thought to have been pursued by a predator.

Dinosaur footprints may also have been removed from Valtos on Skye, SNH said at the time.

Such actions contravene the guidelines in the Scottish Fossil Code.

The logo of the Scottish Fossil Code.The Scottish Fossil Code

 

Fossil collecting is important for scientific and educational purposes.  It is also a popular hobby.  

Fossil collecting is an essential activity that provides the raw material and data for the science of Palaeontology – study of life that existed prior to, and sometimes including, the start of the Holocene Epoch (roughly 11,700 years before present).

Nevertheless, dinosaur bones are extremely rare.  Any new find should be presented to a local museum whenever possible.  For this reason, it is better for fossils that fall from cliffs to be found, collected and enjoyed, rather than be eroded and washed away by the tide.

New finds add to our record of past life and environments on planet Earth.  Following the Code will increase the personal interest and satisfaction that can be gained from creating a fossil collection, and help conserve the fossil heritage of Scotland.

The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 included provision for Scottish Natural Heritage to prepare the Scottish Fossil Code.  The Code, produced with assistance from paleontological researchers, land managers, collectors and others with an interest in Scotland’s fossil heritage, provides advice on best practice in the collection, identification, conservation and storage of fossil specimens found in Scotland.  The Code also aims to enhance public interest in the fossil heritage of Scotland and promote this resource for scientific, educational and recreational purposes.

 

Middle Jurassic Park

A photograph showing palaeontologist Neil Clark and the dinosaur tracks found on Skye.
Palaeontologist Neil Clark and the dinosaur tracks found on Skye.

Evidence of dinosaurs and ancient large reptiles from the Middle Jurassic and other periods have been found on the island of Skye.

According to Dr Neil Clark of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, the Misty Isle’s fossils include “very rare” dinosaur remains from the Middle Jurassic, a period of Earth’s history still a mystery to scientists because of a shortage of fossil evidence from the time.

Skye is the only place in Scotland where fossils of dinosaurs have been found.  The island has more than 10% of the world’s Middle Jurassic dinosaur species and more than 15% of the Middle Jurassic dinosaur sites.

Scotland’s Fossil heritage comprises an irreplaceable and finite resource that has uses in science, education and recreation.  Unfortunately, it is vulnerable to abuse and damage and needs safeguarding and management to ensure its survival for the future generations.

Welcome to Jurassic Skye!

Enjoy responsibly.