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23 Jul 2014
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Huw Williams Dinosaurs on the Beach

Huw Williams reports on how a trip to the beach with a dog turned into a walk with dinosaurs.

Scientists in Scotland have announced the discovery of the biggest, and best, dinosaur footprints ever found north of the border. The huge tracks - which date from 165 million years ago - have been found on the coast of the Isle of Skye.

In Jurassic times the beach, on the east coast of Skye facing Staffin island, would also have been a beach. But it would have been very different. Very flat. Not sea, but a large lake. And a balmy Mediterranean climate, instead of Skye's traditionally bracing weather.

Dr Neil Clark from the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow showed me the site where the tracks have been found, in an area that's popular with families and local young people. Nobody knows for certain exactly what kind of dinosaurs walked here, leaving their footprints in the sand, but Dr Clark says they were big. Maybe something like a Megalosaurus, which grew up to 10 meters long. Oh, and it was a meat-eater too.

He used a shovel, then a fine brush, to remove sand several feet thick, piled on top of the tracks by high tides and strong winds. And as the marks in the rock started to emerge, I understood why he was so sure these were big beasts.

Each footprint is made up of three massive toes - each one at least one and a half times as big as my foot. That makes them the biggest dinosaur prints ever found in Scotland. And Dr Clark says they are significant, because they are still in the original strata of rock where they were formed.

Other tracks have been found in loose boulders, which makes it much more difficult to be sure where they fit in the geological picture.

The very first dinosaur footprint on the beach was discovered by Cathie Booth. She was out walking the dog when she suddenly saw a piece of rock with what looked like a huge claw mark embedded in it. She took it back to the local hotel she runs with her husband Paul.

He told me as soon as he opened the boot of the car, and saw what his wife had brought home he was dumb-founded: "There was a dinosaur print, sitting there, staring at me!", he says.

He suggested they go back to the beach, near Staffin slipway, and look for more tracks. At first they saw nothing interesting, but eventually they found the right rock horizon, and started finding more - 15 in total.

They called in Neil Clark, who confirmed the significance of what they had unearthed, and mounted a scientific search for more prints.

It is almost exactly 20 years since the first dinosaur footprints were found anywhere in Scotland, and that was also on Skye. But Dugald Ross, who runs Staffin Museum, says the latest tracks are the best ever.

He told me "when one finds a number of tracks together, the scientists are able to verify the size of the animals, and the speed they were walking or running at". All in all, he says, the latest finds are causing a lot of excitement.

But there is one thing that puzzles me. I can understand that, over geological aeons of time, bones get changed to rock, and preserved as fossils. But - in my ignorance - I wondered how that can happen to something as insubstantial as footprints, and even the ripples in the sand where the dinosaurs walked. Neil Clark, from the Hunterian Museum, was kind enough not to tell me I had asked a stupid question.

He says the beach, and the prints, must have dried out slightly. Enough to make them hard. And then the whole area must have been covered with a fine dusting of dry sand blown by the wind millions and millions of years ago. As the sand, and mud, got compressed, the marks were preserved. And that's why the prints are still there in the rock, when the upper layers got worn, or smashed, away.

But the beach were the prints have been found is battered by storms, so there's a risk that the precious traces of the time when dinosaurs ruled the world might get eroded and destroyed. That is one reason why Dr Clark is back on Skye now, making moulds, and taking casts, of the tracks. The idea is to make sure they are preserved for the future. And those events are open to the public.

So, if you're on Skye - and if you have got little monsters in the family who are obsessed with dinosaurs - now is your chance to take them to a REAL Jurassic park. They can put their feet in the prints left behind by some of the biggest creatures that ever walked on earth. At least that should keep them quiet on the car ride home.

LINKS
Megalosaurus page in The Natural History Museum's Dino Directory
Dinosaurs at The Hunterian Museum
BBC Walking With Dinosaurs
The Isle of Skye, Lochalsh & Raasay Online


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Megalosaurus
An artist's impression of a Megalosaurus
A view of Staffin beach
Dr Neil Clarke digging for more tracks
Cathie and Paul Booth and the print they found on Staffin beach
Sign for the Staffin Dinosaur Museum
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