Inspiration from the latest Scottish fossil finds – by Elsa Panciroli

Growing up in the Highlands, I never thought of Scotland as a hot-bed of palaeontological research. And yet, many important Victorian fossil discoveries were made in this country. Take the spectacular fossil fishes leaping from the flagstone quarries of Caithness. These were the dwellers of Lake (surely Loch?) Orcadie, which existed over 360 million years ago. Near Elgin, 19th century sandstone quarrymen puzzled over the remnants of Triassic reptiles and mammal predecessors, which left only their hollow casts entombed in ancient desert sands. Beneath those layers, the footprints of sharp clawed animals – never before imagined by naturalists – sauntered over ancient, Permian dunes.

These are just a few examples of Scotland’s historical natural-science heritage. These discoveries inspired writers like Hugh Miller – a self-taught geologist and palaeontologist – to pen prose that breathed life into the latest scientific wonders through the written word. We are now seeing a resurgence in palaeontology in Scotland, thanks to the efforts of teams comprising researchers from across the UK. There was never a better time to take to the pen in the name of palaeontology.

Scotland’s fossil fish are still spawning new scientific discoveries. Almost every museum you visit around the western world has a Scottish fish fossil or two among its treasures. They were dispatched far and wide in the last one hundred and fifty years, and continue to migrate to distant shores in the name of science. Only recently, a team led by researchers in Australia made a remarkable discovery in one such Devonian fossil. The team found evidence for claspers in a 383 million year old armoured fish. This hints at the mating behaviour of this long extinct group – it turns out they did it sideways – and provides some of the oldest evidence in the fossil record for a sexual mechanism in a backboned animal.

‘Tiny’ (Aytonerpeton microps), one of the first animals to walk on land, found in the Scottish Borders. (Credit: Elsa Panciroli/National Museums Scotland)

In the Scottish borders lie the origins of terrestrial vertebrate life. When professional amateur fossil-hunter, Stan Wood, reached into the ice-cold depths of a freezing river in southern Scotland over a decade ago, his numb fingers found the remains of the first backboned creatures to set foot on land. His feeling for fossils kick-started ongoing research by the TW:eed project: a scientific research programme studying these relics of the Early Carboniferous (around 350 million years ago). Just last year, several new specimens were published as part of this project, including Aytonerpeton microps – ‘the creeping one from Ayton with the small face’, or Tiny, to her friends and admirers. Tiny’s snout and hand were encased in an unpromising splodge of rock. She was only revealed when the team CT-scanned it, finding her sharp little teeth grinning back at them from the computer screen. Fossils like her are filling in what is called ‘Romers Gap’: a time in the fossil record which was previously a mystery to science. Scotland is one of the only places in the world with rocks from this time, and they are uncovering an ecosystem bustling with life, including the land-lubbing ancestors of everything from dinosaurs to frogs to humans.

Skye dinosaur footprint in Staffin Dinosaur Museum (Credit: Elsa Panciroli)

A fleeting two hundred million years after this, Scotland was an island in a warm archipelago. What is now the Isle of Skye found itself dipped repeatedly under shallow seas, like a bather toe-testing the water. The sediments laid down in this fluctuating Jurassic world captured the sunken remains of ichthyosaurs (marine reptiles that resembled dolphins), as well as the footprints of colossal sauropod dinosaurs and their bipedal cousins. Researchers studying these trackways are quite literally walking in the footsteps of the dinosaurs that waded through brackish coastal lagoons. Dog-sized early crocodile-ancestors also inhabited this world. Soaring overhead, flying reptiles stretched out their membranous wings. These pterosaurs had their beginnings in the earlier Triassic, successfully undertaking vertebrate life’s first attempt at flight.

The jaw of Wareolestes rex, a 166 million year old mammal from the Isle of Skye (credit: Panciroli, Benson and Walsh 2017)

While many eyes are drawn to such iconic giants, the Isle of Skye holds smaller jewels that are arguably more precious. The fossil wonders my collaborators and I specialise in remain firmly earthbound. We study the exquisite micro-vertebrate fossil skeletons of squamates (the group that includes snakes and lizards) and mammals – our own furry, milk-making relatives. Like many animal lineages in the Middle Jurassic, squamates and mammals were splitting into many new groups at this time, leading to the descendants we still recognise today. These skeletons we study are small: with limbones the thickness of rice and teeth like cous-cous. But glance down a microscope, and their enamelled ridges and beetle-carapace-piercing cusps glisten like obsidian. Once again, it is technology which opens up this miniature world to us. CT-scans of rocks with blackened fossil bones poking from the surface, reveal secret skeletons suspended in the stone beneath.

This is a mere taster of the incredible fossil heritage peeking out from under the blanket of our landscape. From the rolling borders to the windswept northern capes and salty Western Isles, we have almost every time period preserved. CT-scanning has transformed palaeontological study. Thanks to this technology we can find and examine fossils that were previously either overlooked, or impossible to access. Such research continues to inspire people to create works of art and literature.

Nothing beats the feeling of lifting your first ghostly spiral ammonite from Cromarty Kimmeridgian cliffs, or wiping the smudgy clay from a belemnite pen on a Staffin shoreline. I hope this years’ Hugh Miller Writing Competition will provide an avenue for your fossil-inspired poetry and prose. I can’t wait to see what ancient treasures it reveals.

Elsa Panciroli is a palaeobiologist from the Highlands of Scotland, currently completing her PhD as a mature student at the University of Edinburgh and National Museums Scotland. She has a background in science communication, having previously worked for marine conservation charity. She is the only female member of the Scottish palaeontology research Group, PalAlba. Elsa is also a science writer, contributing regularly to The Guardian newspaper.

Elsa’s research interests focus on the earliest mammals from the Mesozoic, particularly those from the Jurassic rocks of the Isle of Skye. She is part of two teams carrying out regular field work in the Inner Hebrides, and has published on new mammal fossils that form an integral part of the ancient ecosystem of Jurassic Scotland.

Elsa Panciroli | The Guardian