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Far-flung dinosaur? Similar tracks cue study

It's a Jurassic curiosity: As far as anyone can tell, the fossilized, three-toed dinosaur tracks in north-central Wyoming and on Scotland's coast are indistinguishable.
Dinosaur Tracks
University of Wyoming paleontologist Brent Breithaupt holds a plaster facsimile of a Wyoming dinosaur track. Breithaupt plans to create maps and three-dimensional representations, to compare dinosaur tracks in Wyoming and Scotland.Mead Gruver / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's a Jurassic curiosity: As far as anyone can tell, the fossilized, three-toed dinosaur tracks in north-central Wyoming and on Scotland's coast are indistinguishable.

Even after painstaking measurements and statistical analysis, University of Glasgow paleontologist Neil Clark can't identify any differences between the two sets of 170 million-year-old tracks.

"The fact that the footprints in Wyoming and the ones in Scotland are so similar suggest that they may have been produced by a very similar kind of dinosaur, if not the same species," he said during a recent phone interview from his home in Glasgow, Scotland.

If the same dinosaur species made the tracks, the discovery would be as earthshaking as a mighty apatosaurus. No one has ever 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.

Now, American scientists are preparing to scrutinize the tracks further. They will use three-dimensional mapping technology that is revolutionizing the study of dinosaur tracks — and promises to enable scientists to make detailed, intercontinental comparisons without leaving their offices.

"What we hope will eventually happen is that there will be this huge virtual archive that can be shared worldwide," said Brent Breithaupt, a University of Wyoming paleontologist and head of the school's Geological Museum. "Tracks can be looked at in three dimensions on computer screens and can be rotated around by various researchers — and can be compared."

Breithaupt doubts the same dinosaur species made the Wyoming and Scotland tracks.

"The tracks are similar, that's what we know," Breithaupt said. "It more than likely indicates similar types of dinosaurs living at higher latitudes at some point in time."

But he's more than happy to make comparisons.

For one thing, precious little is known about dinosaurs from the Middle Jurassic epoch, when dinosaurs cemented what would be a very long reign on Earth — and when both sets of tracks were made. Scientists have documented very few fossil dinosaur bones from that epoch in North America, making the handful of track sites in the American West valuable for understanding it.

Also, Breithaupt has spent nearly a decade adapting photogrammetry — using photos to create maps and three-dimensional representations — to the study of dinosaur tracks. Now, he's taking that work overseas.

Most of the tracks Clark examined from the two locations ranged from about an inch long to more than 8 inches, and he compared details such as the length of each toe and the angles between them. He believes the tracks were made by a type of two-legged, carnivorous dinosaur called a theropod.

One set is from 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 others are near the shore of the Isle of Skye off Scotland's west coast.

Wyoming and Scotland were much closer together in the Middle Jurassic, before continental drift opened up the Atlantic Ocean between what is now Europe and North America. Even so, the tracks were roughly 2,500 miles (4000 kilometers) apart when they were made — about the distance between New York and Los Angeles.

Breithaupt and geographer Neffra Matthews followed up Clark's Red Gulch visit by traveling to the Isle of Skye. They photographed the tracks there and plan to process those photos into three-dimensional images; they already have 3-D images of the Wyoming tracks.

Matthews works for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Denver and is experienced in photogrammetry. She said the process has become much easier over the past 10 years with the improvement of digital cameras and software.

Paleontologists already take digital cameras into the field, Breithaupt said.

"All you have to do is take your camera and take from a couple different camera angles some overlapping photos," he said.

Clark maintains that the same dinosaur species possibly could have made the widely separated tracks, although he doesn't necessarily think individual dinosaurs migrated that far. He published his findings in the Scottish Journal of Geology last year.

"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.

He praised Breithaupt and Matthews for taking the next step.

"Who knows what might show up? It might show me to be completely wrong," he said.