June 1, 2009

Similar Dino Tracks Discovered In Wyoming, Scotland

Experts are baffled over the discovery of fossilized, three-toed dinosaur tracks that have been found in both north-central Wyoming and on Scotland's coast, The Associated Press reported.

Neil Clark, a paleontologist at the University of Glasgow, has not been able to identify any differences between the two sets of 170 million-year-old tracks even after a series of painstaking measurements and statistical analysis.

He told AP that since the footprints in Wyoming and Scotland are so similar, they may have been produced by a very similar kind of dinosaur, if not the same species.

Paleontologists have never been able to say for certain that the same dinosaur species was responsible for fossil tracks discovered at separate locations, much less thousands of miles apart.

But now, using three-dimensional mapping technology that is revolutionizing the study of dinosaur tracks, American scientists are preparing to scrutinize the tracks further.

The technology will enable scientists to make detailed, intercontinental comparisons without leaving their offices.

Brent Breithaupt, a University of Wyoming paleontologist and head of the school's Geological Museum, said they hope to help establish a huge virtual archive that can be shared worldwide.

"Tracks can be looked at in three dimensions on computer screens and can be rotated around by various researchers - and can be compared," he said.

However, he doubts that the same dinosaur species made the Wyoming and Scotland tracks.

"It more than likely indicates similar types of dinosaurs living at higher latitudes at some point in time," Breithaupt said.

Experts say little is known about dinosaurs from the Middle Jurassic epoch, when the giant lizards cemented what would be a very long reign on Earth - and when both sets of tracks were made.

The handful of track sites in the American West are very valuable, as scientists have documented very few fossil dinosaur bones from that epoch in North America.

After nearly a decade adapting photogrammetry - using photos to create maps and three-dimensional representations - for the study of dinosaur tracks, Breithaupt is now taking his work overseas.

He believes the tracks were made by a type of two-legged, carnivorous dinosaur called a theropod, as most of the tracks Clark examined from the two locations ranged from about an inch long to more than 8 inches.

Breithaupt compared details such as the length of each toe and the angles between them.

The North American tracks were discovered in the area of Red Gulch in arid north-central Wyoming, where it looks like a flock of big birds ran across freshly poured concrete. The other tracks were found near the shore of the Isle of Skye off Scotland's west coast.

However, during the Middle Jurassic period, Wyoming and Scotland were much closer together before a continental drift opened up the Atlantic Ocean between what is now Europe and North America. But the tracks would still have been roughly 2,500 miles apart when they were made - about the distance between New York and Los Angeles.

After securing 3-D images of the Wyoming tracks, Breithaupt and geographer Neffra Matthews photographed the tracks on Scotland's west coast and plan to process those photos into three-dimensional images.

Although he doesn't necessarily think individual dinosaurs migrated that far, Clark still maintains that the same dinosaur species possibly could have made the widely separated tracks.

"But that doesn't mean to say this animal couldn't range as a species over that distance. It's quite possible that it did," he said.

His findings were published last year in the Scottish Journal of Geology.

"Who knows what might show up? It might show me to be completely wrong," he said of Breithaupt and Matthews' research.


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