Published: 08 Dec 2014 | Last Updated: 09 Dec 2014 17:14:58

Using a combination of 3D X-ray technology, animation and simulation, researchers at The Royal Veterinary College and Brown University are one step closer to unlocking the mysteries of fossilised footprints left by dinosaurs that walked the earth around 200 million years ago.

Dr Peter Falkingham, a Research Fellow in the RVC’s Structure and Motion Lab, and co-author Professor Stephen Gatesy from Brown University have, for the first time ever, been able to visualize the complex reorganization of sedimentary particles during footprint formation.

The pair imaged the subsurface foot movements of a chicken-like bird walking through soft sediment, and then used these movements to simulate the formation of a 3D, virtual footprint.

The 3D motion of the bird’s foot was recorded as it moved over a sand-like substrate. This motion was transferred to a simulation, so that the footprint could be observed beneath the surface for comparison with fossil dinosaur footprints

The bird’s footprint simulation has then been compared to the fossilised track of a small dinosaur – similar in size to the bird – that walked the earth during the Jurassic Period more than 200 million years ago.

The significance of the work is that it can now help palaeontologists understand tracks left by dinosaurs on a deeper level.

Peter Falkingham
Dr Peter Falkingham

Dr Falkingham said “By observing how a footprint is formed, from the moment the foot hits the sediment until it leaves, we can directly associate motions with features left behind in the track. We can then study a fossil track left by a dinosaur and say ‘ok, these features of the track are similar, but these are different, so what does that mean for the way the animal was walking?’”

The virtual footprint was created by combining two X-ray videos with a digital skeletal model derived from CT scans, a 3D motion analysis called X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology (XROMM) developed at Brown University. This technology allows the authors to reconstruct motions of the bird’s foot in 3D, even when the toes are hidden from sight below the sediment’s surface.

The authors then transferred the motions of the bird’s foot into a simulation of the particles in the sediment, carried out on a supercomputer. This generated a virtual footprint that could be observed at and below the sediment surface, throughout the step cycle. Being able to directly associate movements of the foot with features of the footprint, both at and below the sediment surface, opens the possibility of more accurately reconstructing the way dinosaurs moved from their footprints.

“Footprints are not just simple molds of the bottom of the foot,” Prof Gatesy added “so it’s important to understand how the dynamic interaction between a living animal and the substrate give rise to a track’s 3D shape.”

Going forward the research could be used to figure out how other, bigger dinosaurs roamed the earth, how prehistoric mammals migrated and even how early humans walked the land.

graphic of a simulated footprint
A simulated footprint, exposed 1 cm beneath the layer the bird walked on
3D reconstruction of the bird’s leg and foot bones, as well as the footprints it left behind
The 3D reconstruction of the bird’s leg and foot bones, as well as the footprints it left behind

Notes to Editors

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The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the England's largest and longest established veterinary school and is a constituent College of the University of London. The RVC  offers undergraduate, postgraduate and CPD programmes in veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing and is ranked in the top 10 universities nationally for biosciences.  It is the only veterinary school in the world to hold full accreditation from AVMA, EAEVE, RCVS and AVBC.

A research-led institution, the RVC ranked as the top veterinary school in the Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science unit of the most recent Research Assessment Exercise with 55% of academics producing 'world class' and 'internationally excellent' research. The College also provides support for the veterinary profession through its three referral hospitals including the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals, Europe's largest small animal hospital, which sees more than 8,000 patients each year.    

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