EXPERTS have confirmed that a new species of marina reptile, similar to a dolphin, swam in Trotternish waters, 170 million years ago. The creature measured up to 14-feet from snout to tail, and inhabited warm, shallow seas in Skye during the Jurassic Period. They were near the top of the food chain at the time and preyed on fish and other reptiles. The species was identified by fossils found several decades ago at Bearreraig Bay, near the Storr Lochs.
In what is understood to be a first for the language, the species has been given a Gaelic name by Staffin Museum curator Dugald Ross, who was a contributor to the research.
The exciting discovery comes more than 20 years after dinosaur footprints were discovered at Staffin Beach.
A team of palaeontologists – led by the University of Edinburgh and a consortium of Scottish institutions, including the Staffin Museum in Elishadder run by Dugald – studied fossil fragments of skulls, teeth, vertebrae and an upper arm bone unearthed in Skye over the past 50 years. They identified several examples of extinct aquatic animals – known as ichthyosaurs – which lived during the Early-to-Middle Jurassic Period, including the entirely new species.
The new species – Dearcmhara shawcrossi – is named in honour of an amateur enthusiast called Brian Shawcross who recovered the creature’s fossils from Bearreraig Bay.
During the Jurassic Period much of Skye was under water. At the time it was joined to the rest of the UK and was part of a large island positioned between landmasses which gradually drifted apart and became Europe and North America.
Dr Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, which led the study, said: “During the time of dinosaurs, the waters of Scotland were prowled by big reptiles the size of motor boats. Their fossils are very rare, and only now, for the first time we’ve found a new species that was uniquely Scottish. Without the generosity of the collector who donated the bones to a museum instead of keeping them or selling them, we would have never known that this amazing animal existed. We are honoured to name the new species after Mr. Shawcross and will do the same if any other collectors wish to donate new specimens!”
Dugald said it was the latest exciting Jurassic discovery in the Staffin area. “Although the fossil at Bearreraig Bay was found as far back as 1959, the recent research has identified its uniqueness,” he said. “The scientific paper on Scottish ichthyosaur finds will highlight the specimen and as one of the contributors, I took the liberty of giving the new genus a partial Gaelic name – Dearc mhara shawcrossi – (Shawcross sea lizard) after the finder, Brian Shawcross). I’m not aware of Gaelic being used in this way before so this could be a first!”
Dugald said past local discoveries include the world’s oldest recorded Stegosaur and the smallest dinosaur footprint ever recorded.
“Other exciting finds have been made in the last couple of years and the research on these will be published soon,” he said.
Staffin Museum curator Dugald Ross helped name the new species in Gaelic.
“Some of the described specimens were collected by me over a period of years and are displayed in the museum. Other specimens were found by others who then contacted me for advice on what to do with them etc. Having a good knowledge of the local Middle Jurassic rocks is an invaluable guiding asset which has led to several finds being made by individuals.”
The study into the new species is published in the Scottish Journal of Geology. Dr Nick Fraser, of National Museums Scotland, said: “Not only is this a very special discovery, but it also marks the beginning of a major new collaboration involving some of the most eminent palaeontologists in Scotland.
“It has brought together key organisations, local collectors on Skye and specialists from further afield. We are excited by the programme of work and are already working on additional new finds. This is a rich heritage for Scotland.”
The work was carried out by a consortium involving the University of Edinburgh, National Museums Scotland, the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, Scottish National Heritage and Staffin Museum, Isle of Skye.
Members of the research team will be exhibiting the bones of Dearcmhara at a one-day fossil event at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh on Sunday, January 18 from 10am-4pm.