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New technique brings previously lost paleontological sites back to life

3 April 2014

Scientists from the Royal Veterinary College have used freely available software to bring a significant paleontological site back to life in new research published in the journal PLOS ONE (3 April 2014).

The team, lead by Dr Peter Falkingham, used photogrammetric techniques to reconstruct an accurate 3D model of the famous Paluxy River dinosaur trackways based on historic photos taken by Roland T. Bird over 70 years ago during his discovery and excavation of the site.

Dinosaur trackway
Photogrammetric reconstruction of the trackway. Photo-textured (top) and height mapped (bottom) views of a section of the trackway constructed from Bird's original photos.

The site in Glen Rose, Texas is among the most famous dinosaur tracks in the world; representing a wealth of information about dinosaur paleobiology and including the infamous 'chase sequence' involving a theropod and sauropod.

Once excavated the trackway was split up and housed in different institutions with one section having since been lost or destroyed. The two remaining sections are housed by the American Museum of Natural History and the Texas Memorial Museum.

Remaining unexcavated tracks are subject to the destructive forces of the Paluxy River, so in 2008 a team of researchers led by Prof. James Farlow (Indiana Purdue University), and funded by the National Geographic Society, set out to document the tracks in as accurate and systematic way as possible.

It is within this project that the team of Dr Peter Falkingham (RVC), Dr Karl Bates (University of Liverpool) and Professor James Farlow (Indiana Purdue University) developed the application of historical photogrammetry.

Initially using overhead photography and LiDAR laser scanning, in recent years the team has been able to use the process of photogrammetry which uses multiple digital photographs to generate a 3D model by matching features between images and calculating relative camera positions.

Peter FalkinghamDr. Falkingham explained: "When we first set out to map the Paluxy River track, creating an accurate 3D model of the site required use of a large, heavy laser scanner that cost tens of thousands of pounds, and was prone to failure especially in the extreme heat in Texas. However, in recent years the technology of photogrammetry has significantly improved to the point where we were, for the first time, able to use this free software to get results just as - if not more - accurate than from use of a laser scanner.

"Not only does this work with modern digital photographs but because the technology has become so advanced, and desktop computers so powerful, we were also able to use the historic photographs taken by R.T. Bird.

"This is a significant advancement for the protection of sites and artefacts of paleontological importance. It is only natural that specimens will be lost or deteriorate over time, particularly those such as fossil trackways that must remain in the field. But this technology has opened up an avenue for recreating these important sites and artefacts at little cost. All you now need are multiple photographs taken from different angles to be able to create accurate 3D models."

The 3D model of the Paluxy River dinosaur trackways will now be incorporated into a further study of the larger tracksite, helping scientists like Dr. Falkingham understand how the dinosaurs moved, and how they interacted with each other and their environment.

Notes for editors

  • Research Reference: Falkingham PL, Bates KT, Farlow JO (2014) Historical Photogrammetry: Bird's Paluxy River Dinosaur Chase Sequence Digitally Reconstructed as It Was prior to Excavation 70 Years Ago.
    PLoS ONE 9(4): e93247. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093247
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