Along the northwest Australian coast lies a dinosaur highway.
With the Indian Ocean eating away at the rock, the red cliffs of the Kimberley have revealed hundreds of prehistoric footprints. Two-legged theropods and big-bodied sauropods, among other groups, walked this patch of Earth around 130 million years ago.
Armed with drones and hand-held laser scanners, scientists are mapping the heavy tracks they left behind.
Anthony Romilio works in the Vertebrate Palaeontology and Biomechanics Lab at the University of Queensland. He and his team have created 3D models of track sites using a combination of high-resolution aerial photography and lidar a way of measuring depth with laser light gathered by hand, drone and light aircraft.
Publishing their digital approach in the journal PeerJ in March, Romilio and his team developed the high-tech method in response to the significant environmental challenges of mapping the coastal footprints.
Traditionally, such tracks are recorded by photography and drawing an outline of the footprint by hand, usually over a sheet of plastic a time-consuming procedure. Combing the data captured by plane, drone and hand-held devices, the team were able to build a data-rich virtual 3D model of the landscape more rapidly and with higher fidelity.
That’s important, because as well being remote, the tracks lie under water most of the time. There’s also the expense of outlining each print individually: The potential site is vast, covering around 100 kilometres (62 miles) of coast.
The digital maps also reveal a new level of detail about the prints themselves. “You may think it’s the track of a dinosaur, but after you do some 3D modelling, you’ll be able to confirm what kind of dinosaur it was, if it was moving in a particular manner, or whether or not it’s a dinosaur track at all,” Romilio explained.
The data is important because we have little record of the dinosaurs that lived on the Australian continent during the early Cretaceous period. It also helps scientists understand the ecology of the area, as well as clues about the habits and abundance of the dinosaurs themselves.
“We can get a good idea of the size of the animals, if they travelled in herds, their speed,” he said. “We can build up a more detailed picture of their actual behaviour.”
Given the ocean is constantly eroding the site, their 3D record is also a tool for digital conservation.
After gathering this dinosaur data from more than 70 track sites, Romilio now plans to analyse it in greater detail to see what the results can tell us about these ancient creatures.
Still, it may prove hard to keep him away from the dinosaur coast for long. “When you’re on the beach, these are beautiful white sands, the cliff line is a tremendous ochre red, and the ocean a fantastic blue,” he said.
“For us to be spending all our days in that is a real treasure … it’s the best place to work, in my opinion.”