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Motion in the fossil record: Reconstructing dinosaur limb kinematics from fossil footprints

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Sedgwick Club Conference 2019

Fossil footprints are a record left by an animal in motion, preserving an interaction between a foot and a substrate. If we can understand this interaction at a fundamental level, we can begin to reverse engineer track formation and reconstruct the limb movements of long extinct animals such as dinosaurs.

The track-forming process is far more complicated that a simple stamp-and-mould though, and even studying the foot-substrate interactions in living animals is made difficult by the opacity of the substrate. Combining bi-planar X-ray of birds walking over compliant substrate with supercomputer simulations of individual sediment grains provides a never-before-seen view of the sediment reorganization that results in a track. The insight from this process can be applied to 200 million year old fossil dinosaur footprints, exposed over multiple laminations. The result is not only reconstructions of actual dinosaur limb motions, but an understanding of the sources of diversity in fossil tracks.

Peter is a Senior lecturer in Vertebrate Biology at Liverpool John Moores University. He is broadly interested in animal locomotion, and particularly in recovering motion from the fossil record via computational techniques. He holds a BSc in Geology and Biology, and an MSc in computer science, both from the University of Bristol. In 2010, Peter was awarded a PhD on Computer simulation of dinosaur tracks from the University of Manchester. Shortly after, he held a Marie Curie international outgoing fellowship jointly between the Royal Veterinary College, London, and Brown University, USA , in which he developed techniques for recording and simulating footprint formation in birds and dinosaurs.

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