Ancient Stegosaurus relatives wandered across the Scottish highlands

Remnants of 170 million-year-old Jurassic bagpipes are yet to be found.
Isle of Skye dinosaurs in the mid Jurassic.
The Isle of Skye was once more like the Isle of Dinosaurs. Jon Hoad.

When you think about Scotland, the first images that pop into your mind are probably of gorgeous cliffs and men in kilts. But rewind a few million years, and Scotland was hardly the place we know it as today. Its inhabitants were wildly different as well.

The Isle of Skye, for example, is one of the most picturesque spots in the modern Scottish Highlands, but it’s also home to a diverse array of tracks and fossils from middle-Jurassic creatures. A new paper published in PLOS One this week shows that among these ancient Scottish inhabitants is possibly an early cousin of a dinosaur fan favorite.

A team led by paleontologists Paige DePolo and Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, discovered new tracks back in 2017. One revealed an entirely new type of Scottish dinosaur: a plate-backed stegosaur.

“Stegosaurs are some of the most iconic dinosaurs of all,” says Brusatte, “and these handprints and footprints are the first evidence that they once inhabited Scotland.”

Stegosaurs are large, plant-eating creatures with rows of armored plates lining their spine, and are mostly known to be seen in the late Jurassic period (or in the Jurassic Park films). But the noteworthy thing about these footprints is that they were dated back millions of years before the existence of the most famous stegosaur of all — the Stegosaurus.

“These are also some of the oldest stegosaur fossils from anywhere in the world,” Brusatte adds, “so they tell us stegosaurs were evolving and diversifying at least by 170 million years ago, a good 20 million years before the famous Stegosaurus itself lived.”

The middle Jurassic is a bit of a mystery. Finding dinosaur fossils and tracks in terrestrial sediment from that time is “so doggone rare,” says Brooks Britt, a paleontologist at Brigham Young University who was not involved in the study. Finding anything, especially tracks of a creature we mostly associate with the late Jurassic, is a huge deal.

Tracks, Britt says, show where the dinosaur actually was walking around. In contrast, fossils can be transported miles away from their original location by rivers and other waterways.

“With tracks, you know they were walking along that beach,” he says.

But of course, the dinosaurs were tracking around a wildly different world than the one we see today in Scotland. Back 170 million years ago during the middle Jurassic, all modern continents were stuck together in a singular mass called Pangea, and the chunk we know as Scotland today had a warm, humid climate—kind of like Florida, Brussatte says. This Jurassic Scotland, with rivers, mountains, and lagoons, created homes for all sorts of dinos, including previously discovered massive long-necked sauropods and carnivorous dinosaurs as big as jeeps.

With this new discovery, ancient stegosaurs can be added to the mix, and even possibly another type of dinosaur which left large, three-toed tracks that resemble those of duck-billed dinosaurs dated back to the upper Jurassic.

Whether or not these guys were decked out in iconic Scottish tartan is up to your imagination.