Kate Romano chats to Dr Mike Romano, her father, about a life-long love of geology, discovering the Dinosaur Coast, and whether Stegosaurus really could swim…
My most vivid childhood memories are set in the campsites of Portugal. Before the routine of school interrupted things, my younger brother and I happily grew up living what we assumed was a perfectly normal nomadic lifestyle. We moved around this beautiful country of cork oaks, olive trees and walled cities, making our ‘home’ wherever we pitched the tent, which my brother and I would surround with gardens created from pine cones and miniature museums exhibiting shells and stones.
If you’d asked me back then what we were doing in Portugal, I’d have said we were there because my Dad loved looking at rocks. He still does. In the 1970s, as Mum resolutely brought up two young children under canvas, my palaeontologist father was out in the field, studying trilobites from the Ordovician period.
But Dad’s career changed direction in the 1980s with a chance walk along a Scarborough beach with his friend and fellow Sheffield University geologist Martin Whyte. ‘We’d come to buy specimens for the University from a fossil shop’ he said. ‘You find a lot of these shops along the East Coast with some lovely fossils. And quite by chance, we saw a dinosaur footprint in the sandstone. It was unmissable… around 20cm long, three toed, with claws… an absolute beauty from the middle Jurassic’.
The footprint was loose in the rock, so they took it back to Sheffield and wrote a paper about their find. ‘A Footprint in the Sands of Time’ was published in the University Geological Journal in 1981. ‘It was the print of a slender theropod,’ said Mike. ‘A carnivore, and we could tell the depth that the foot went into the sediment and how the animal moved. But to be honest, we didn't really realise the full significance of it. The first dinosaur footprint was discovered on the East Coast in 1908 and a paper was written about it. Since then, there have been half a dozen papers about footprints from this area, but not much more. In the early 1990s, no-one knew that the East Coast was a dinosaur mecca’.
A few years later, Mike and Martin started leading EarthWatch International trips to the East Coast. ‘Dinosaurs have always held a deep fascination for people’ said Mike. ‘Each EarthWatch trip brought groups of around twelve amateur fossil-hunters to the East Coast and for two weeks at a time, we’d comb the beaches, and we just kept finding more and more footprints! This research - all the more pleasurable for doing it this way - vastly increased our database and we soon began to realise that there was a huge diversity of footprints along the Scarborough Coastline. It is known as the Cleveland Basin, an enormous coastal plain near the sea where the dinosaurs roamed. This was a vast dinosaur community. There were prints from giant sauropods, and from big alpha carnivores including megalosaurus (not Tyrannosaurus - that was later) but not so many of the carnivores. As we went down the pyramid, we realised that there were more and more of the smaller herbivores (some as small as a chicken) on which the carnivores fed. It's really just like a wildlife community structure today. In 2014, we also found footprints of flying reptiles - pterodactyls; that was a first for this area and an important find. It taught us how these ungainly animals could walk on land’.
In 2011, Mike and Martin started to find swimming tracks. ‘We weren’t sure what they were at first. We were used to seeing typical footprints of sauropods in the mud, and then we saw scrape marks. We thought they might be the swimming tracks of a Stegosaurus with its feet clawing the surface as it touched the bottom’. Their controversial 2015 paper ‘Could Stegosaurus Swim?’ (Yorkshire Geological Society) is now widely accepted and similar Stegosaurus swimming tracks have been recorded in Spain, Portugal and America.
Mike became president of the Yorkshire Geological Society in 2003 and published all of their findings from the 1990s, building up a full picture of the Dinosaur Coast. Though retired from academia, Dad is still active as a researcher, and is currently looking into the similarities between the modern King Crab and fossilised King Crab tracks made 140 million years ago. ‘They look and behave just like a modern King Crab’ he explains. ‘Not only do we have the fossilised prints, but we have a fossilised outline of the King Crab’s body which was made when it burrowed into the sand. It's quite extraordinary how some animals have not changed a bit over 140 million years. Most adapt and evolve, but for some groups, there has barely been any evolution at all’.
What's the best footprint you've ever found? I ask my Dad. He pauses; ‘probably a Stegosaurus (see below). Sometimes it's a bad day and you don’t find anything, but then when you do, it's an extraordinary moment that links us with an ancient past. A footprint is really special; you can put your hand or your foot exactly where a dinosaur has been, and the mystery and fantastical nature of that never fails to move me’.
Dr Mike Romano will bring his collection of fossils, minerals, crystals and modern sea shells to the Granary on 3rd and 4th August, and will be here in person to answer all your geological questions.
To book a place on our Dinosaur Discovery Days, please click here
Images from top to bottom
1. Mike explaining to a student how a sauropod walking can make the trackway they have just found in the rocks (c. 1990s)
2. Studying a footprint close up (c. 1990s)
3. Stegosaurus hind foot Deltapodus brodericki (Mike's favourite find)