Ireland's colonisation of the world before dinosaurs walked the Earth

Kya deLongchamps reveals Ireland’s special claim to fame and the dramatic role it played in colonising the Earth before the Age of the Dinosaur

ONE thing I love about our country is that we really do believe, hand on heart, that we have the biggest, deepest, oldest, most important and — (soaked in gorgeous) — just about everything.

Well, obviously. Quietly bristling with misplaced pride, O’Connell Street, Dubliners will tell you, is the widest boulevard in Europe. It’s not. The Champs Elysses is about twice as wide. Phoenix Park is touted by taxi drivers as the largest municipal park in the World. It’s not. La Mandria in Venaria Reale and Richmond Park in London have a deer-littered, greater sprawl.

Do visitors from overseas reach Cork expecting to see the ‘Venice of the South’, crisscrossed by trilling boatmen in woven bonnets? Is Santa really buried in a lost town in County Kilkenny? Let’s get back to that in December — I’m intrigued.

In science, technology and planetary curiosities, we have some genuinely fantastic and lasting monuments of endeavour and natural wonders on show.

These include the oldest working lighthouse in Europe — Hook, the siting of which may date back to the 5th century or even earlier. We often only realise what we have with our noses pressed to rain spattered signage on a muttering stay-cation here at home.

For example, 110 years ago Guglielmo Marconi unleashed everything we now enjoy in wireless communication, transmitting from the World’s first Transatlantic Radio Station in 1907 in Derrigimlagh Bog in Connemara to Grace Bay in Nova Scotia. Stump over there next time you’re around Clifden, and enjoy the five-kilometre walking loop, a Signature Discovery Point on the Wild Atlantic Way.

There is something else, however, that you might only happen upon pushing a bike along the back roads of Valentia Island in Kerry — and it’s of unsurpassed world renown. Puff out those chests and lean in.

A sign showing what appears to be an inebriated newt leads down to the surviving little-dimpled step of an animal that waded some shallow waters at a crucial evolutionary moment some 350-380 million years ago.

Having been startled almost into a cliff fall by my first Irish lizard on Helvick Head in County Waterford, this is heady stuff for a reptile nerd. During the Devonian Age, the sea would have been humid, swampy environment near the equator, a land plate known as Laurentia connected to the east coast of what is now the United States.

Half of Ireland as we know it now, had been dawdling in another plate several thousand miles to the south before a tectonic event got us together around 400 million years ago, but the Atlantic Ocean had not yet yawned open. A four-legged vertebrate was here, making impressions on land, even if still immersed in the protection of the shallow sea water.

The discovery of the track by Iwan Stössel in 1994 caused huge excitement in palaeontology and they are the most extensive of the four known Devonian trackways in the World. Yes, right there on Valentia. Forget pickled bog men and snake-defeating super-saints, we have an unassailable spot in the story of the fish-tetrapod transition!

Ireland's colonisation of the world before dinosaurs walked the Earth

Squinting and squatting, grating knee cartilage against rock, five track-ways are visible on what is known as a ‘rippled bedding plane’ probably left there after a flood.

The longest on Valentia, and this makes it distinct from the other three finds, is some 15m long and made it is suggested by an animal 1m in size.

These modest marks have caused quite a stir among Devonian scientists, who are not able to determine exactly what the fin like structures that made the walk were made up of, and if these rudimentary legs could even hold an animal up.

Was the tetrapod fully down in the water or up on wet yielding land? This strain may not have even survived what National Geographic dubbed the journey from ‘fins to feet’, but it, and its companions, were breathing air and walking, head and shoulders thrown from one side to the other, as they moved.

Some viewers of the track claim to see where the abdomen and tail touched the silty bottom.Flashier fossils have been found in Ireland, but in the fossil record, the Tetrapod Trackway is a superstar, predating the age of the dinosaur some 200 million years ago.

There is a barrier protecting the find, and I’m afraid due to the steep path, wheelchairs and anyone with walking difficulties should probably stay behind (perhaps video the site for those friends and relatives in the party). Visit at early morning or early evening on a calm day. Please be respectful and do not cross the barrier.

For other things to do on the island and its sea-lashed surrounds take in the UNESCO World Heritage Site and intergalactic Skellig retreat of Luke Skywalker and the site of St Brendan’s best abseiling adventures (completely true), go online to valentiaisland.ie.


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