Fossils aren’t the only clues left behind from the Jurassic period. A team of scientists were out hunting for fossils on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and stumbled upon hundreds of dinosaur footprints. And they weren’t even looking for them.

After an uneventful day hunting for fossils, Dr. Stephen Brusatte (who led the study) and a colleague were heading back to the car. On the way, a large area of exposed rock covered in big pot-hole like impressions caught their eye. “Then we noticed there was a zigzag shape to them,” Brusatte tells New Scientist.

Brusatte and his colleagues just discovered hundreds of footprints made by sauropods during the Middle Jurassic period. These sauropods lived around 170 million years ago. And they were big. Each one likely grew to at least 15 meters in length; that’s about 50 feet for U.S. folks. They also tipped the scales at more than 10 tons.

You’d be surprised how much scientists can learn from just footprints. For instance, analysis of the structure of the footprints points to the sauropods being early relatives of the Brontosaurus and Diplodocus.

Where the footprints were found also tells scientists a lot about their lifestyle. The Isle of Skye footprints matches up with other tracks found in various parts of the world. Sauropods weren’t afraid of the water. They didn’t swim, but they did hang out in shallow water in coastal areas. Scientists had thought sauropods were purely land-dwellers.

sauropod footprints

The scientists speculate on why sauropods lived near these coastal areas in their study. One line of thinking points to the abundant supply of food lagoon systems could provide. Or, the dinosaurs used the shallow water to help cool their body. Which would make sense. Other studies have suggested sauropods had high metabolisms. Sauropods could also have used the water as a defense mechanism to get away from predators.

“Whatever the reason, the Middle Jurassic sauropods of Skye were denizens of ancient lagoons, and perhaps this was a more widespread environmental preference for other sauropods,” the scientists conclude.

Brusatte touches on the magnitude of this find. “The new tracksite Skye is one of the most remarkable dinosaur discoveries ever made in Scotland. There are so many tracks crossing each other that it looks like a dinosaur disco preserved in stone. By following the tracks you can walk with these dinosaurs as they waded through a lagoon 170 million years ago, when Scotland was so much warmer than today.”

Dr. Tom Challands, who helped find the footprints, also talked about the impressive discovery. “This find clearly establishes the Isle of Skye as an area of major importance for research into the Mid-Jurassic period. It is exhilarating to make such a discovery and being able to study it in detail, but the best thing is this is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m certain Skye will keep yielding great sites and specimens for years to come.”

Finding fossils from the Middle Jurassic Period is a tough task for scientists. The Isle of Skye is one of the few places in the world where they have been found. Until the footprint discovery, the only evidence of sauropods discovered in this area were small bone and teeth fragments.

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