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Goldilocks and Dinosaur Tracks

Project Details

PhD Studentship

Finite element analysis was used to investigate the extent of bias in the ichnological fossil record attributable to body mass. Virtual tracks were simulated for four dinosaur taxa of different sizes (Struthiomimus, Tyrannosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Edmontosaurus), in a range of substrate conditions. Outlines of autopodia were generated based upon osteology and published soft-tissue reconstructions. Loads were applied vertically to the feet equivalent to the weight of the animal, and distributed accordingly to fore- and hindlimbs where relevant. Ideal, semi-infinite elastic–plastic substrates displayed a 'Goldilocks' quality where only a narrow range of loads could produce tracks, given that small animals failed to indent the substrate, and larger animals would be unable to traverse the area without becoming mired. If a firm subsurface layer is assumed, a more complete assemblage is possible,though there is a strong bias towards larger, heavier animals. The depths of fossil tracks within an assemblage may indicate thicknesses of mechanically distinct substrate layers at the time of track formation, even when the lithified strata appear compositionally homogeneous. This work increases the effectiveness of using vertebrate tracks as palaeoenvironmental indicators in terms of inferring substrate conditions at the time of track formation. Additionally, simulated undertracks are examined, and it is shown that complex deformation beneath the foot may not be indicative of limb kinematics as has been previously interpreted, but instead ridges and undulations at the base of a track may be a function of sediment displacement vectors and pedal morphology.

This article has been published, and the full reference for the paper is:

Falkingham, P.L., Bates, K.T., Margetts, L., and Manning, P.L. 2011 The 'Goldilocks' effect: preservation bias in vertebrate track assemblages. Journal of The Royal Society Interface.

This article received extensive press coverage from the BBC, Physorg, Wired, The Daily Mail and e! Science News.

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