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Dinosaur hunting on Isle of Wight uncovers 125-million-year-old bones, footprints and treasure on the coast

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It’s not every day you stub your toe on the foot of a dinosaur, but that’s exactly what happens to me within hours of arriving on the Isle of Wight. It’s one of several scattered across Compton Bay. The thick lumps of dinosaur feet-shaped rock were formed when the fearsome predators left footprints in swampy areas, which filled with sand when the area flooded. The result? Impressive casts of their feet. With their Trump-like combovers of seaweed, these casts aren’t always easy to recognise (hence the toe-stumping) but I find several with impossibly clear outlines; enormous casts with three huge, easily-recognisable “toes”.

There are more dinosaur remains here than anywhere else in northern Europe, and a much greater diversity of remains than those found in areas such as the Jurassic Coast. To find out more I sign up for a fossil-hunting walk along Brighstone Bay with Theo Vickers, one-third of the brilliant Wight Coast Fossils, which offers fossil tours all around the island. Theo explains that the swamps and rivers which once swept across this part of southern England helped preserve the island’s remains incredibly well, and today its easily eroded, towering cliffs regularly reveal buried treasure, particularly during the windier, wetter weather of autumn and winter.

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In August this year, the University of Southampton announced that dinosaur remains found on the island in 2019 belonged to a new species of dinosaur. As we pick our way along Brighstone Bay on the island’s south-west coast, Theo describes the current era as the “sweet spot” – large numbers of significant dinosaur discoveries have been made here, but there’s still plenty to find. By law, whatever you find on the beach is yours to keep, but if it’s buried in a cliff, it belongs to the landowner. The footprint casts on Compton Bay are an exception, thanks largely to the National Trust, which secured its protection when it became obvious that they had become sought-after garden ornaments. Theo adds that visitors are now more respectful of the remains – gone are the days when locals would regularly spot fossil-hunters dragging dinosaur bones along the beach towards their cars.

Blasts from the past

Boy next to life sized exhibit at Dinosaur Isle Image via Visit Isle of Wight
Life-sized dinosaur fossil exhibits at the exhibition (Photo: James McCormick/British Tourist Authority)

Theo points out that amateurs have played a crucial role in revealing the island’s prehistoric past. Take the Reverend William D Fox, who was transferred to the island in 1862, aged 43. This amateur fossil hunter’s finds included one of the first, almost-complete dinosaur fossils, and the plant-eating dinosaur was christened Hypsilophodon foxii

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in his honour.

Theo shows me a fragment of jet-black fossilised dinosaur bone, with its pockmarked, honeycomb-like surface, and a chunk of fossilised wood, its deep creases gleaming with ribbons of fool’s gold, otherwise known as iron sulphide – a compound most likely to form in putrid, decomposing environments, a brilliant example of which was the Isle of Wight’s swampy, dinosaur carcass-dotted coastline. He picks up a lump of what looks like dark wood and explains that it’s fossilised crocodile poo. Identifying features include its smoothness (their stomach acids dissolved the tiniest of lumps) and deep pinches which he gleefully refers to as “squeeze marks”.

I spot a lump of stone imprinted with a lace-like pattern of tiny holes, but Theo, who’s attempting to steal my thunder by pointing to a boulder bearing the bitemark of a dinosaur, isn’t impressed. “It’s just a fossilised sea sponge – they’re everywhere,” he responds, before striding across the beach to the recently exposed innards of a towering cliff, where a series of grey lumps protrudes from the sandstone.

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Dinosaur hunting in Dorset: there are plenty of fossils to be found on the Jurassic Coast

It turns out that I’m looking at a tail bone of a 125-million-year-old iguanodon (a large herbivorous dinosaur) unearthed in early 2020. It was discovered by an amateur fossil-hunter and exposed after a period of bad weather caused the cliff to erode – a process feared by the landowners above, but less so by people like Theo. “We’re the only people who don’t worry about out our house insurance, or whether our homes will fall into the sea,” he says with a laugh.

Exploring the past

The Dinosaur Isle at Sandown Beach Parade, a popular beachside resort at the Isle of Wight in South England. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Dinosaur Isle at Sandown Beach Parade (Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty)

Later, I get to see some of the dinosaur remains discovered in 2019 for myself. They’re on display at Sandown’s Dinosaur Isle Museum, next to a dinosaur-themed mini-golf course. It’s a fantastic tribute to the island’s prehistoric past, and packed with remains discovered on the island. Exhibits include a vertebrae from a leptocleidus, an extinct species of marine mammal which (to my untrained eyes) looked like a cross between a seal and a crocodile, and the perfectly preserved skull of a bison that once wandered these shores. It has been so well-preserved that the skull’s interior bears the latticework-like imprint of the creature’s brain.

The dinosaur remains discovered last year are displayed in a small glass case. To the inexperienced, they look like charred lumps of bone, or possible misshapen stones – not the bones of a dinosaur which roamed the island 115 million years ago.

But perhaps I’ve been spoiled – over the space of one weekend I’ve admired clear-cut dinosaur footprints, fossilised dinosaur poo and the backbone of an of a 125-million-year-old iguanodon. And of course, my favourites – fossilised sea sponges (sorry, Theo).

Travel essentials

Sandown Image via Visit Isle of Wight
Sandown is one of the beautiful places to explore (Photo: Visit Isle of Wight)

Getting there

Returns from Portsmouth to Fishbourne with Wightlink ferries cost from £49.50 per car, wightlink.co.uk.

Staying there

Use of the six-bedroom Grade II-listed Mill House, near Brighstone, starts from £400 per night, themillhouseiow.co.uk. Currently, the property can only be let to groups of six or less from one or more households under current Tier 1 restriction rules.

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