In the footsteps of giants: Can dinosaur tracks tell us as much as fossils and bones?

Birds are the descendants of dinosaurs. But how did those muscle-bound therapods evolve into such delicate creatures? And, did birds “give up” terrestrial locomotor superiority in order to fly?

These and more questions will be addressed in a £2.2 million research project on the evolution of dinosaurs though fossil tracks, led by Dr Peter Falkingham, a reader in vertebrate biology in the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

Peter said: “Fossil footprints are a direct record of motion in a way that skeletons can never be. I will use fossil footprints to explore the locomotor changes that took place as theropod dinosaurs evolved into birds.”

The five-year study, funded by the European Research Council, will create a new team of post-docs and technicians to undertake advanced 3D imaging, physical experimentation, and computer simulation to bridge the existing gap between fossil footprints and fossil skeletons.

Lab-based footprint-making experiments will combine kinematic and kinetic analyses to build an unprecedented view of footprint formation. Limb motions of long-extinct dinosaurs will be reconstructed using fossil tracks, then supercomputer simulations modelling every grain of a sediment responding to the indenting foot will be used to test the reconstructed motions.

Added Peter: “These simulations will compute the forces occurring between foot and ground. These forces and motions will drive musculoskeletal biomechanical simulations that will shed light, not only on what the feet of dinosaurs were doing, but on how the whole limbs and even bodies of these enigmatic animals once moved. 

By sampling fossil tracks from around the world, spanning the 230 million years since theropods first appeared, this project will recover fossilised motions along the dinosaur-bird lineage.

“The results should give us a unique view of locomotor evolution that cannot be recovered from bones alone.” 

You may also be interested in this recent research by Peter and the team.






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