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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Dinosaur Island - The importance of the Isle of Wight in the field of palaeontology

Published: 23 October 2014
Gareth Dyke

Just off the south coast of the UK rests the Isle of Wight, a small island of vital importance to the field of palaeontology. Even from a global perspective, some of the richest fossil-bearing rocks of the Early Cretaceous period (146Ma–100Ma) are found here.

The island is part of the Wealden Supergroup, an area of strata in the south of England composed of alternating sand and clay deposits. Rocks of ‘Wealden’ age are exposed along the south coast of the Isle of Wight, mostly in the rapidly-eroding cliffs (at the rate of about 1m per year), and here are found the fossils of dinosaurs and plants from over 100 million years ago.

Given the comparatively limited amount of rock exposure (only about 15km along beaches) on the Isle of Wight, incredibly this Dinosaur Island boasts more named species of dinosaur that many other places around the world. These fossils and what they can tell us about prehistoric species and environments are of undeniable global importance—there are actually relatively few places on Earth where rocks documenting this particular slice of time, the Early Cretaceous, can be found. This part of the geological record (the Early Cretaceous towards the end of the ‘age-of-dinosaurs’) seems to have been an important time in dinosaur evolution, yet it remains little understood when compared, for example, to the later stages of the Cretaceous.

Dinosaur Island is distinct in its capacity as a concentrated source of many fossils from an important age in the Mesozoic era (252Ma–66 Ma), and is one of the best places in Europe to collect the remains of dinosaurs. The University of Southampton actively promotes the geological and palaeontological importance of the Isle of Wight, both locally and globally. However, even in the Southampton area many people are not aware of this considerable fossil resource—a resource with the potential to tell us so much about evolution and climate change.

The Biological Journal of the Linnean Society has produced a special issue dedicated to this Dinosaur Island. Based on papers from an international conference held at Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre in October 2013, the issue looks closely at the Isle of Wight and areas of similar age, like those in western China where more recent discoveries of feathered dinosaur species, early mammals and early angiosperms have been found. The papers synthesize the study of both the geological and palaeontological aspects of the island, including papers on the world famous dinosaur footprints found there, from species like Iguanadon and Neovenator. Papers also include descriptions of new fish, mammals and crocodiles found on the Isle of White, and give insight into this critically undersampled section of the geological past.

Access the Dinosaur Island Special Issue via

Dr Gareth Dyke talks about the upcoming special issue of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society - a collection of papers presented at the 2013 Jehol-Wealden International conference celebrating the Isle of Wight and links with the Chinese Early Cretaceous. Watch this video here:

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