Fossil heritage

Why’s Scotland’s fossil heritage so important?

Fossils are the remains or traces of once-living animals and plants and range from microscopic pollen grains to dinosaurs. Fossils are found mostly in sedimentary rocks that represent accumulations of sand, silt and mud laid down in ancient marine, lagoon, river and lake environments.

A Torridonian sedimentary rock sequence – located near Ullapool in the north-west of Scotland, these 1000 million year old rocks contain some of Scotland’s oldest known fossils. © Scottish Natural Heritage.

It is possible to find fossils in sea cliffs and beaches, within and alongside river and stream sections, and in quarries, where natural erosion or human activity has exposed the layers of sedimentary rock. The rich and diverse fossil heritage of Scotland spans 1,200 million years of Earth history. Scotland has yielded the world’s oldest known vertebrate (a primitive fish), some of the earliest amphibian and reptile remains, some of the oldest known plants, the oldest known insect, and some of the earliest mammal remains. Scotland’s fossil heritage has therefore had a crucial role in the study of plant and animal evolution. There is no doubt that important discoveries will continue to be made.

Scotland’s fossils are of great scientific and educational value. They provide an insight into prehistoric life and allow the reconstruction of environmental conditions that existed millions of years ago, as Scotland drifted across the face of the Earth. They enable us to piece together past life and its evolution to the present day.

This is the science of palaeontology. Fossils are also crucially important for dating rocks and comparing rock sequences regionally, nationally and internationally (the science of stratigraphy). The role of fossils is vital in the search for oil, gas and coal, all essential for our day to day existence.

Fossils are also an essential component in educating and training geology students, by helping to aid an appreciation of biological evolution and geological processes in general.

Permian age sandstone – dating from around 250 million years ago, this bedding surface, from the Elgin area, illustrates the trackways and tail drag marks (trace fossils) made by animals that inhabited an ancient desert environment when Scotland was located just north of the Equator. © Scottish Natural Heritage.