If I told you a team of scientists had discovered hundreds of massive footprints in a Scottish lagoon, you'd probably peg me for a Nessie hoaxer. But that's exactly what happened when a pair of researchers from the University of Edinburgh went digging around on the Isle of Sky.

One of the tridactyl footprints, with outlines marked. Image: Stephen Brusatte

Stephen Brusatte and Tom Challands were looking for fossil fish teeth and crocodile bones back in April when they stumbled across hundreds of sauropod footprints dating back to the Middle Jurassic, some 170 million years ago.

Reaching 100 feet in length and standing up to 60 feet tall, sauropods were some of the largest creatures ever to roam the Earth – and they had feet to match. The footprints Brusatte and Challands discovered were two feet (or 70cm) in size! (To put that into perspective, they were larger than those left by T. rex!) 

"We were gobsmacked. We didn't expect to find them at all. We went to this site because a geologist friend of ours found a small crocodile jawbone fossil there, so we got a scent of fossils and trekked up there," Brusatte recalls of the day they made the discovery. "Right as we were leaving for the evening we noticed the tracks. It dawned on us immediately that we had seen similar things in other places, but never in Scotland. They were sauropod tracks and we knew we had a major new discovery on our hands.”

While finding footprints may not sound as exciting as finding actual bones, they still offer important clues about a very distant past. “Footprints are records of real animals interacting with their environment," explains Brusatte. 

Today, the site, which sits on the Atlantic coast, is highly tidal, allowing the team to splash through the water just as these "long necks" may have done themselves. "We can literally walk with these dinosaurs by following their prints, or more accurately, wade with the dinosaurs."

Image: Jon Hoad

The lagoon-type sediment suggests that these animals were not purely land-dwellers as previously assumed. They didn't swim, but it's possible that wading into plant-rich, watery environments like this lagoon provided them with ample food. 

"It's kind of eerie splashing through the shallow tidal pools studying the tracks," Brusatte says. "These colossal animals were walking right here 170 million years ago. It's mind boggling."

Scotland hasn't had as much palaeontological time in the spotlight as some other countries, making the find particularly exciting for Brusatte, Challand and the rest of their team. In fact, the first Scottish dinosaur was found a mere thirty years ago. And there is a lot more to learn.

“We're only scratching the surface when it comes to finding Scottish dinosaurs," he says. "People have been finding dinosaurs in England or the western US for almost two centuries."

The team plans to return to the area to study the tracks in greater detail, and to find more dinosaurs. By laser scanning the track surface, they hope to figure out just how many sauropods walked these lands, how big they were and how they moved. 

Image: Stephen Brusatte
Image: Stephen Brusatte

Top header image: Jon Hoad