Research Spotlight: Digital dino track a roadmap for saving at-risk natural history resources

Portable laser scanning technology allows researchers to tote their latest fossil discovery from the field to the lab in the form of lightweight digital data stored on a laptop. But sharing that data as a 3D model with others requires standard formats that are currently lacking, say SMU paleontologists.

University researchers used portable laser scanning technology to capture field data of a huge 110 million-year-old Texas dinosaur track and then create to scale an exact 3D facsimile. They share their protocol and findings with the public – as well as their downloadable 145-megabyte model – in the online scientific journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

The model duplicates an actual dinosaur footprint fossil that is slowly being destroyed by weathering because it’s on permanent outdoor display, says SMU paleontologist Thomas L. Adams, lead author of the scientific article. The researchers describe in the paper how they created the digital model and discuss the implications for digital archiving and preservation. Click here for the download link.

“This paper demonstrates the feasibility of using portable 3D laser scanners to capture field data and create high-resolution, interactive 3D models of at-risk natural history resources,” write the authors.

“3D digitizing technology provides a high-fidelity, low-cost means of producing facsimiles that can be used in a variety of ways,” they say, adding that the data can be stored in online museums for distribution to researchers, educators and the public.

SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs is one of the coauthors on the article. “The protocol for distance scanning presented in this paper is a roadmap for establishing a virtual museum of fossil specimens from inaccessible corners across the globe,” Jacobs said.

The full-resolution, three-dimensional digital model of the 24-by-16-inch Texas footprint is one of the first to archive an at-risk fossil, the SMU paleontologists say. They propose the term “digitype” for such facsimiles, writing in their article “High Resolution Three-Dimensional Laser-scanning of the type specimen of Eubrontes (?) Glenrosensis Shuler, 1935, from the Comanchean (Lower Cretaeous) of Texas: Implications for digital archiving and preservation.”

Laser scanning is superior to other methods commonly used to create a model because the procedure is noninvasive and doesn’t harm the original fossil, the authors say. Traditional molding and casting procedures, such as rubber or silicon molds, can damage specimens.

But the paleontologists call for development of standard formats to help ensure data accessibility. “Currently there is no single 3D format that is universally portable and accepted by all software manufacturers and researchers,” the authors write.

SMU’s digital model archives a fossil that is significant within the scientific world as a type specimen – one in which the original fossil description is used to identify future specimens. The fossil also has cultural importance in Texas. The track is a favorite from well-known, fossil-rich Dinosaur Valley State Park, where the iconic footprint draws tourists.

The footprint was left by a large three-toed, bipedal, meat-eating dinosaur, most likely the theropod Acrocanthosaurus. The dinosaur probably left the footprint as it walked the shoreline of an ancient shallow sea that once immersed Texas, Adams said. The track was described and named in 1935 as Eubrontes (?) glenrosensis. Tracks are named separately from the dinosaur thought to have made them, he explained.

“Since we can’t say with absolute certainty they were made by a specific dinosaur, footprints are considered unique fossils and given their own scientific name,” Adams said.

The fossilized footprint, preserved in limestone, was dug up in the 1930s from the bed of the Paluxy River in north central Texas about an hour’s drive southwest of Dallas. In 1933 it was put on prominent permanent display in Glen Rose, Texas, embedded in the stone base of a community bandstand on the courthouse square.

The footprint already shows visible damage from erosion, and eventually it will be destroyed by gravity and exposure to the elements, Adams said. The 3D model provides a baseline from which to measure future deterioration, he said.

Besides Adams and Jacobs, other co-authors on the article are paleontologists Christopher Strganac and Michael J. Polcyn in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU.

The research was funded by the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at SMU. – Margaret Allen

> Find more information, photos and links at the SMU Research blog

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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