Saturday, 2 April 2016

Palaeontology on the Island of the Mist and Wings

The Isle of Skye has a mystique about it. In Gaelic either the winged isle, or island of the mist, it lures tourists to explore the mountains and beaches, taking advantage of unique wildlife watching opportunities. This is where I saw my first golden eagle; as a wee girl in the back of the car, staring out the window as we sped back to our home on the Scottish west coast.

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), by the fantastic Scottish photographer, Charlie Phillips.
Although I've never lived far from the island, like most people I didn't know about the Mesozoic secrets under my feet. It was only as an adult that I became aware of Skye's fossil heritage (see my blog: Taking to the Skye). I couldn't have guessed I'd be lucky enough to return a couple of years later as a palaeontologist, in search of internationally important Jurassic fossils.

Many of Scotland's famous geologists admired the rocks of Skye. In his fabulously multi-titled
The Cruise of the Betsey or a Summer Ramble Among the Fossiliferous Deposits of the Hebrides with Rambles of a Geologist or Ten Thousand Miles Over the Fossiliferous Deposits of Scotland (catchy), Hugh Millar described arriving in Kyle of Lochalsh in the 1840s "...the hills of Skye seem leaning against those of the mainland: and the tide buffeted steamer looked this morning as if boring her way into the earth like a disinterred mole..." Millar recognised fossil reptile and fish bones on the Isle of Eigg, which lies south of Skye. In 1878, John Wesley Judd named these rocks, which span several Inner Hebridean islands, The Great Estuarine Group.

Check out Scottish Natural Heritage's guide to Skye for a taster of the islands' geology.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the mammal palaeontologist Robert Savage visited Skye with teams of geologists and palaeontologists from various UK universities. He uncovered fossils from different groups, including fish, marine reptiles, crocodiles, turtles and mammals. His stunning mammal finds - as yet undescribed - are the basis of my PhD. But of course Skye has been spitting out bits of Mesozoic fauna for years, as the locals will attest as they show you their beachcombed hauls. Some of the most impressive Skye fossils are at Dugald Ross's Museum in Staffin, the largest collection of dinosaur footprints and bones in Scotland. Dugald found many of the dinosaur remains on Skye, including a sauropod femur. He is also a fellow member of Pal Alba.

Dugald Ross with theropod footprints on Skye
This week I'll be part of two teams on their quest to uncover the Jurassic past in Scotland's Inner Hebrides. To begin with, I'll travel with the University of Edinburgh team to scour the beaches of the North. For the second half of the week I'll journey to the South of Skye to meet up with researchers from the National Museum of Scotland, the University of Oxford, and University of Birmingham; searcing the rocks that yielded previous Mesozoic mammalian marvals. 

Join me here on this blog to find out more about our field work on this stunning Isle. 

Dunskeath Cattle, another amazing image from Charlie Phillips.

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