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Fossil hunting and geology at Compton Bay and Downs

Visitors on the beach at Compton Bay and Downs, Isle of Wight
Visitors on the beach at Compton Bay and Downs | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Go fossil hunting and discover history on a gigantic scale at Compton Bay and Downs, with the cliffs getting younger as they change colour from east to west and revealing both meat-eating and herbivorous dinosaur footprints, fossilised oyster shells, ammonites, flint made from ancient sponges and even modern-day shipwrecks.

Fossil hunting

The Isle of Wight is the richest source of dinosaur remains in Europe. Around 125 million years ago, this coast was a series of muddy lagoons. Dinosaurs left their footprints in the mud and sometimes, when they died, their bones became fossilised.

When the sea water and strong waves erode the soft cliffs around Compton Bay, dinosaur remains often fall down onto the beach. So far, fossils from over 20 different species of dinosaur have been found, some of them unique to this area.

Where to spot fossils

The best place to search for fossils is between Brook Bay and Compton Bay at low tide. Look in loose gravel and stones on parts of the beach recently covered by the sea. You may find:

  • Fossilised dinosaur bones – they’re usually black and shiny, with a honeycomb texture.
  • Dinosaur teeth – these look like huge black teeth.
  • Fossilised wood – this is also black but less dense, without the honeycomb pattern. If it leaves a black mark when you scrape it on a stone, it’s fossilised wood, not a dinosaur fossil.

There are large three-toed iguanodon foot casts at the base of the cliffs just to the east of Compton Bay car park at Hanover Point. At 30-60cm across, they’re hard to miss.

Stay safe around the cliffs

  • The cliffs are unstable and rocks can fall at any time, so don't climb them or sit too close.
  • The best time to go looking for fossils is at low tide, but make sure you don't get stranded.
  • Wet rocks can be very slippery.
  • Please leave the foot casts for everyone to enjoy.
  • Never use tools such as hammers.
  • No digging allowed – the cliffs are unstable and permission is needed for serious investigations.
  • If you find anything that looks very interesting in the cliff, please leave it in place. Take a photo and report it so that it can be properly investigated and recorded.
Close view of fossils at the disused Loftus Alum Works, North Yorkshire
Close view of fossils | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Geology at Compton Bay

The oldest orange rocks to the east were formed in rivers and lagoons. The younger white chalk to the west was formed in a gradually deepening warm sea when the North Atlantic Ocean started to widen.

The rocks we see today around Compton Bay date from 126 million years ago – in the centre of Brook Bay – to about 67 million years with the youngest chalk over Tennyson Down.

Millions of years of history

125 million years old 

Herbivores and meat-eaters

Foot casts from a giant plant-eating dinosaurs have fallen out of a hard layer of siltstone in the crumbling cliffs. This area may once have been a dinosaur migration route, with herds of dinosaurs following the muddy banks of rivers, looking for plants and water. Their footprints have been filled in with silt and preserved. 

It's rarer to find foot casts of meat-eating dinosaurs on the beach but they’re always worth looking out for. These dinosaurs were generally smaller than the plant eaters and tended to have narrower, more pointed toes. 

You may be lucky enough to find a small piece of dinosaur bone on the beach. Look out for the honeycomb structure. Don’t confuse bone with lignite (fossilised wood). It leaves a black mark when scraped on rock but fossilised dinosaur bone doesn’t.

Family on the beach at Compton Bay, Isle of Wight, are reflected in the wet sand near the edge of the sea

Discover more at Compton Bay and Downs

Find out how to get to Compton Bay and Downs, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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