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Tuesday, 27 August, 2002, 00:26 GMT 01:26 UK
Walking in dinosaurs' footsteps
Skye beach
The beach is on the east coast of Skye

Scientists have announced the discovery of the biggest, and best, dinosaur tracks ever found north of the border. The huge footprints - which date from 165 million years ago - have been unearthed on the Isle of Skye.
In Jurassic times the beach on the east coast of Skye facing Staffin island would still have been a beach - but it would have been very different.

The landscape would have been very flat, with a large lake instead of the sea 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 popular with families and local young people.

Staffin Museum sign
The find is causing interest at Staffin Museum
No-one knows for certain exactly what kind of dinosaurs walked here, leaving their footprints in the sand, but Dr Clark says they were big.

They were possibly something like a Megalosarous, which grew up to 10 meters long. Oh, and it was a meat-eater too.

Dr Clark 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.

As the marks in the rock started to emerge, I understood why he was so sure these were big beasts.

Dinosaur prints

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 scientists are able to verify the size of the animals and the speed they were walking or running at

Dugald Ross
Staffin Museum
The very first dinosaur footprint on the beach was discovered by Cathie Booth.

She was out walking her 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 husband Paul.

When 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 said.

Cathie and Paul Booth with a footprint
Cathie and Paul Booth unearthed 15 footprints
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, one, two, three and then more and more tracks - eventually discovering a total of 15.

They called in Dr 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.

Aeons of time

He said: "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 was one thing that puzzled me.

I can understand that, over geological aeons of time, bones get changed to rock, and preserved as fossils.

Dr Neil Clark
Dr Neil Clark has examined the find
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.

Dr Clark was kind enough not to tell me I'd asked a stupid question.

He said the beach, and the prints, must have dried out slightly - enough to make them hard.

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.

Making moulds

However, the beach were the prints have been found is battered by storms, so there is 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.

Those events are open to the public, giving people the chance to visit the real Jurassic park.

Any little monsters who are obsessed with dinosaurs 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.

The BBC's John Morrison
"The footprints have been concealed by tons of sand"
See also:

17 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
11 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
30 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
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