Scientists Strike Giant Paleontological 'Gold'

Dec 5, 2015
Originally published on December 8, 2015 4:20 pm

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have found a field of dinosaur footprints on the Isle of Skye. The footprints were made by giant dinosaurs 50 feet long that weighed nearly 20 tons. (This piece initially aired on Dec. 3, 2015, on All Things Considered.)

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Before tourists came to Scotland's Isle of Skye, there were dinosaurs - centuries earlier, to be sure. Researchers have uncovered fossilized bones there and now a trove of footprints made by giant beasts hundreds of millions of years ago. As NPR science correspondent Joe Palca reports, one of the most intriguing things about the discovery is where the footprints were found.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Most visitors go to the Isle of Skye for the scenery or the hiking or maybe a tipple of Talisker straight from the distillery - not paleontologist Stephen Brusatte. He goes in search of dinosaur fossils. And last April, he struck paleontological gold.

STEPHEN BRUSATTE: What we found is the biggest dinosaur site that's ever been found in Scotland.

PALCA: It was a huge collection of dinosaur footprints. Brusatte is an American who now works at the University of Edinburgh. I spoke with him by phone from his office there. Brusatte says he and his colleagues almost missed the footprints. They'd gone to a spot along the north coast of Skye, where they'd gotten a tip there were some fossils to be found.

BRUSATTE: It was getting late. It was about 7 o'clock at night. The light was going down. The tide was coming in. You know, we're on this platform of rock that's jutting out into the Atlantic, and time to go home (laughter). And as we were packing up and walking out, we noticed these depressions in the rock that looked kind of like potholes and about the size of trashcan lids.

PALCA: There were lots of these holes and Brusatte says they were arranged in a kind of zigzag pattern.

BRUSATTE: And the picture just came into focus that we were looking at the trackways of these giant dinosaurs.

PALCA: And giant is the right word.

BRUSATTE: We're talking about things that were probably about 15 meters long or so - you know, 50 feet or so - and weighed 15 or 20 tons.

PALCA: Brusatte says when the footprints were made, the area was a shallow lagoon, not the kind of place Brusatte expected to find these behemoths.

BRUSATTE: We just normally don't think of dinosaurs as animals that are frolicking around in the water like that. We think of them as these animals thundering across the land. But these dinosaurs here were very much at home near the water and even in the water.

PALCA: Of course now, knowing what they are, if you look at the pictures of the zigzag holes in the rocks and are fond of big ideas, you can just imagine a group of giant sauropods dancing a reel by the water's edge. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.