THE ELGIN REPTILES
If you walk around Elgin today you will notice the attractive yellow sandstone of the older buildings in the town. The quarries from which the building stone came and the coastal cliffs of Moray tell of ages long ago when the land was in a different part of the world and when the landscape and its inhabitants were entirely different. Today there are only three species of reptile in Moray; the common lizard, the adder and the slow worm, but when the reptiles dominated the world there were at least twelve different species found in the Elgin area.
The fossils of these reptiles are unique to this area and that is why they are known internationally as the Elgin Reptiles. Most of them can be seen in Elgin Museum. These reptiles lived just before the evolution of the dinosaurs. One of them may actually be a dinosaur. They display a range of reptile types, and the variety of different fossil footprints found in the rocks suggests that there was a wide range of species of reptile living in the area at two different points in geological time.
The Elgin Reptiles came to the notice of the world just as Darwin was developing his theory of evolution. Because the rocks had hitherto been thought of as Old Red Sandstone of Devonian age, laid down before the evolution of reptiles, discovery of the fossil reptiles threw the scientific world into confusion. What were fossil reptiles doing alongside Old Red Sandstone fish? The answer is of course that the reptile fossils are found in New Red Sandstone of Permo-Triassic period. Rocks of the Carboniferous period which normally lie between the Old and New Red Sandstone are completely missing in Moray.
Despite the fact that over one hundred million years separated the Old Red Sandstone and the New Red Sandstones they look almost identical in the field. The controversy about the age of the Elgin Reptiles continued for half a century.
And so, even if you look closely at the sandstone buildings of Moray, you may not be able to tell whether the stone came from the lake environment of the Old Red Sandstone or the desert environment of the New Red Sandstone.
Fossil fish were discovered in the Old Red Sandstone in the 1830's in places like Tynet burn and Scaat Craig near Fogwatt. In 1844 the first reptile fossil was discovered. Because the fossil was of scales only, it was not realised that it belonged to a reptile, and experts thought that it was another fish fossil. Then a second fossil reptile appeared in 1851. There was no doubt that it was a reptile, as it looked like a small lizard. As the local quarries were worked, reptiles continued to be found. The latest find being at Clashach, near Hopeman in 1997.
Two Different Faunas
The Elgin Reptiles did not all live at the same time; the fossils date from two distinct geological periods. The reptiles of Cutties Hillock in Quarrywood and those of the Hopeman Sandstones are thought to belong to the late Permian: maybe 250 million years ago. The other fossils are found in the early Triassic rocks, about 220 million years old and are found in Lossiemouth, Spynie and Findrassie. The rocks from both periods tell of a desert landscape. At these times the land lay about 20 degrees north of the equator and was moving slowly north.
The Late Permian Fossils
Three different reptile fossils have been found in Quarrywood. They are all thought to be herbivores and are about a metre in length.
Elginia mirabilis is a pareiasaur, a member of a group of reptiles that became extinct about 250 million years ago. Elginia is closely related to turtles.
Gordonia and Geikia are both dicynodonts.
The new fossil found in 1997 at Clashach Quarry is also a dicynodont, similar to Gordonia but bigger.
Early Triassic Fossils
The Triassic fossil reptiles are more varied. They range in appearance from crocodiles to lizards and from pigs to dinosaurs. Many come from the Lossiemouth quarries, which have largely disappeared as the town expanded.
Although fossil footprints have been known in the New Red Sandstones since the mid nineteenth century, recent quarrying at Clashach has revealed many more reptile trails. The footprints range in size from 0.5cm to 24cm wide. Furthermore, taildrags seem to be commonplace in the quarry, whereas they were previously considered to be unusual in any location. It may be that many of the footprints come from the same species but there is little to tie the footprints to the other known fossils.
Geologists are at ease with the notion of millions of years but most of us find such a length of time difficult to think about. When you walk along the Hopeman sandstones, try to imagine the landscape 250 million years ago. Remember the land is a hot desert, much nearer to the equator. The large sand dunes you walk amongst are star shaped, formed by winds blowing from different directions. There is some vegetation and occasional water. Flash floods may flow from the South. The reptiles you see are mainly dicynodonts with two tusks, not dinosaurs. It may be that a mass extinction will shortly occur which will give the dinosaurs an opportunity to evolve and dominate the world.
If you walk along Prospect Terrace in Lossiemouth you should imagine the desert landscape of 220 million years ago. There are many types of reptiles and possibly some dinosaurs.
The dinosaurs have fascinated humans since their fossils were first found. New specimens are continually being discovered and more is understood about their biology. The Elgin Reptiles are part of the story of the success of the dinosaurs. Researchers continue to work on this story so that they may understand more about the evolution of the dinosaurs and of the early mammals. Visit the fossils in the Elgin Museum, the Elgin Museum website and the places where the reptiles walked and let your imagination take over.