Who doesn’t like dinosaurs? Who doesn’t have a big kid inside them, screaming to go to that exhibition about sea monsters? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to go and find out something about one of Scotland’s most exciting fossil finds from the age of the dinosaurs?
The fossil, introduced to the public today (5 September) at Scotland’s National Museum, is the crumpled remains of a not-quite-dinosaur called an ichthyosaur — a fierce reptile with a long snout and plenty of teeth. The fossil remnants going on display in Edinburgh are incomplete, but palaeontologist Dr. Steve Brusatte, of Edinburgh University, reckons that in life it might have been up to five metres long.
Ichthyosaurs: Jurassic Sea Monsters
Ichthyosaurs emerged during the Jurassic period (208-145 million years ago) and died out in the Cretceous period (escaping the fiery end which overwhelmed the dinosaurs). This particular specimen, as yet scientifically unclassified but known as the Storr Lochs Monster, after the place on the Isle of Skye where it was found — is around 170 million years old.
These scary-looking beasts turn up from time to time, usually in pieces (the odd bone or so) in rocks of the Jurassic age. The Isle of Skye is well known for its richness of fossils — I’ve seen them myself, set into the bed of a rushing stream. But it’s the completeness of the Isle of Skye’s finest fossil that makes it so special. This one, as Dr. Brusatte explained in a presentation at the museum, is “by far the most complete skeleton of one of these sea monsters that’s ever been found in Scotland.”
Having spent the greater part of its existence lying undisturbed in the rocks, the Storr Lochs Monster was finally uncovered by hydro-electric worker, Norrie Gillies, during a walk on the beach. That was in 1966. The beast, by then exposed to wind and waves, wouldn’t have lasted much longer but Norrie called in Scotland’s museums service, and the monster was excavated with care and carried off to be stored in Edinburgh for another half century.
Fossils: Why Skye?
Scotland, with its ancient and varied geology, is rich in fossil remain. The Isle of Skye is possibly the richest and certainly one of the most tantalising places to go fossil hunting. The Storr Lochs monster may be one of the best specimens uncovered, but it isn’t the only one. And with much of the rock on the island dating from the Jurassic period — the one most closely associated with the monsters of the popular imagination — it’s hardly surprising that the island is known for its dinosaurs.
Fossils are strange things. On Skye you’ll find plants and animals preserved in the rocks — including dinosaur footprints, fossil teeth, bones and plenty more. To survive millions of years they have to get through a whole series of hoops.
First of all, there has to be something to preserve — animal, bird, or plant — with some species more easily preserved than others. They have to be in the right place — environments such as swamps or beaches, for example, where sediment settles slowly and gently over a leaf or an animal cares. For the millions of years in which they are encased in rock they have to survive the violence of the geological cycle. That’s what happened on Skye.
And, there’s one final thing. When they emerge at the surface, they have to be found by someone like Norrie Gillies, who recognises them for what they are and helps to rescue them before modern day version can strip the away.
Learning the Lessons of Prehistory
Why did it take so long for the fossil to make its way to public display? Simply because the technology and expertise for examining and interpreting this rare fossil weren’t available — until now. Now, a partnership between energy company SSE (for whom Norrie Gillies worked) the University of Edinburgh and the national Museums of Scotland means that the Storr Lochs Monster will, at last, become the subject of further research.
“We know essentially nothing about how ichthyosaurs evolved during the middle part of the Jurassic,” according to Dr. Brusatte. “The Storr Lochs Monster is one of our only clues from anywhere in the world.” And a detailed study of what’s left of this fantastic creature could reveal clues about the evolution of the species, the life it led, and how it died.
Scotland, of course, has something of a reputation for sea monsters (some of the wilder theories about the more famous Nessie have suggested she might be a dinosaur — another sea monster that existed at around the same time as the ichthyosaurs). Unlike the elusive Nessie, this one is unquestionably real. The Storr Lochs Monster, which Dr. Brusatte says is, “one of the Crown Jewels of Scottish fossils” is, hopefully, is in a position to provide researchers with the answers to a whole lot of questions.