Dinosaur Footprint Formation

A long-standing area of research between Stephen Gatesy and Peter Falkingham, I joined this collaboration as a 1st year graduate student. The driving question “What are the sources of dinosaur footprint variation?” has led us down an exciting path of muddy experiments and data visualization challenges. Our work has revealed strong connections between foot movement through soft substrates and landmarks preserved in fossil tracks–permitting morphological frameworks to be constructed and hypotheses of dinosaur foot motion to be tested. Collaboration with Virtual Reality and data visualization experts were invaluable, as the development of a room-sized application allowed us to interactively explore and gain intuition of patterns occurring within our spatiotemporally complex data.
Methods overview from top to bottom: Using XROMM and morphological analysis of penetrative dinosaur track landmarks, shared patterns of subsurface foot motion in living birds and dinosaurs were revealed. CT scans of fossil footprints reveal preserved substrate deformation within the track slab and permit hypotheses of dinosaur foot motion to be tested through foot animation and DEM (Discrete Element Method) particle simulations of the substrate. Virtual Reality visualizations were developed to interactively explore patterns of substrate motion at the particle, particle cluster, surface, and volumetric scales.

Collaborators: Peter Falkingham, Stephen Gatesy, Johannes Novotny, Joshua Tveite, Fritz Drury, David Laidlaw


Falkingham PL, Turner ML, Gatesy SM. (2020). Constructing and testing hypotheses of dinosaur foot motions from fossil tracks using digitization and simulation. Palaeontology. https://doi.org/10.1111/pala.12502

Turner ML, Falkingham PL, Gatesy SM.(2020). It’s in the loop: shared subsurface foot kinematics in birds and other dinosaurs shed light on a new dimension of fossil track diversity. Biology Letters. 16: 20200309. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2020.0309

Novotny J, Tveite J, Turner ML, Gatesy SM, Drury F, Falkingham P, Laidlaw DH. (2019). Developing Virtual Reality Visualizations for Unsteady Flow Analysis of Dinosaur Track Formation using Scientific Sketching. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics. https://doi.org/10.1109/TVCG.2019.2898796

Conference Workshop: I represented our collaboration at the Virtual Morphology (VirtMorph) symposium and workshop demonstrating our Virtual Reality application at the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology conference, Prague, Czechia.
Student Engagement: As paleontologist domain scientists, in 2015 and 2017 we contributed our track data and presented our visualization challenges to the course “Virtual Reality Design for Science” jointly offered at Brown University + Rhode Island School of Design. Through both iterations of the course, the process of Scientific Sketching revealed many valuable insights that inspired our VR collaboration to meet weekly for four years.
Museum Exhibit: Custom museum exhibit and website on fossil dinosaur track formation created for permanent display at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College, MA. See the accompanying museum website for videos!

selected talks

Turner ML, Novotny J, Falkingham PL, Laidlaw DH, Gatesy SM. (2019). Where does footprint morphology come from? Developing virtual reality visualizations for exploring dinosaur track formation. International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology. (Invited symposium talk).

Falkingham PL, Turner ML, Gatesy SM. (2019). Generating and Testing Hypotheses of Dinosaur Foot Motions Using 3D-Digitized Tracks and Large-Scale Granular Simulations. International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology.

Novotny J, Tveite JJ, Turner ML, Gatesy SM, Falkingham PL, Laidlaw, DH. (2018). Developing a Virtual Reality Application for Unsteady Flow Analysis in Dinosaur Track Creation. IEEE VIS (Visual analytics science and technology, Information visualization, Scientific visualization). (Best Poster Award)

Turner ML, Falkingham PL, Gatesy SM. (2018). Where does footprint morphology come from? Integrating 3D methods for exploring dinosaur track formation. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting. (Invited symposium talk).

Gatesy SM, Turner ML, Falkingham, PL. (2018). CT Imaging of Dinosaur Footprints: Hidden Topography and the Origin of Track Diversity. Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Annual Meeting.

Turner ML, Falkingham PL, Gatesy SM. (2017). Sub-Surface Foot-Trajectories and Fossil Dinosaur Tracks. Last Days of Pangea Triassic-Jurassic Research Symposium.