Dinosaur Chase—Or Just a Walk on the Beach?

Falkingham, Bates and Farlow, PLoS ONE (2014)

ScienceShot: Dinosaur Chase—Or Just a Walk on the Beach?

More than 100 million years ago, dinosaurs left a lengthy set of footprints along a sandy seashore that’s now preserved in stone near Glen Rose, Texas. Impressions left by both a long-necked herbivorous sauropod and a three-toed bipedal predator have led some paleontologists to suggest the trackways preserved an ancient “chase.” In 1940, a team led by a professional fossil collector hacked out footprints from a 9-meter-long section of the fossil trail, which was threatened by erosion, and sent them to museums. Now, researchers have reassembled the ancient trackways in cyberspace, a treat for paleontologists that’s even more special because some of those tracks were later lost or destroyed. First, the team scanned photos taken during the 1940 excavation, converting each into a 42-megapixel digital file. Because many of the images overlapped and contained readily identifiable landmarks (such as footprints, labeled in leftmost image), the team could use sophisticated software to stitch 12 of the digital files together to create a single 45-meter-long 3D model of the site (left and center; colors in center panel represent elevations from low [blue] to high [red]). Although some portions of the model (center right) are more detailed than others (lower right), researchers are able to virtually stroll through the site (upper right) and study it as if it still exists in its original form, the team suggests online today in PLOS ONE. With the new reconstruction, paleontologists can now analyze the trackways and better determine things such as the sizes, motions, and walking speeds of the dinosaurs that left the footprints—which, in turn, may reveal whether an ancient predator really “chased” its prey along an ancient shoreline or merely ambled by at about the same time.

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