Scientists aim camera at fossilized dino tracks

July 28, 2008 6:44:05 PM PDT
Call them the paleo-paparazzi. Scientists trying to learn more about dinosaurs are snapping aerial photos of tracks left behind millions of years ago near southern Utah's Coral Pink Sand Dunes.

Researchers in a specially equipped helicopter crisscrossed an area called the Moccasin Mountain track site, shooting photos of fossilized footprints scattered across the red sandstone.

Alan Titus, a Bureau of Land Management paleontologist, said it's the first time a helicopter has been used to take detailed images of a track site.

The tracks were left by at least six species of dinosaurs ? some with three toes, others with five ? that roamed the landscape about 180 million years ago.

The camera, able to pick up tracks as small as a centimeter, will give scientists a bird's-eye view of footprints dotting the 3-acre site.

The photos will be used to help create maps of the tracks and three-dimensional images so scientists can better understand dinosaur behavior. They'll also be used on interpretive displays for visitors.

"We will be able to make a precise map of the location of the tracks, their spatial patterns and possibly determine what the (dinosaurs) were doing," said Neffra Matthews, the geographer from the BLM's National Operations Center in Colorado who conducted the imaging work.

The fossilized tracks have been known locally for years at Moccasin Mountain, a popular spot for ATV riders.

BLM scientists investigated last fall and found tens of thousands of tracks, ranging from bird-size footprints to others left by animals that were probably 20 feet long.

"The site is outstanding for the quality and size of the tracks, the diversity of animals represented and the range of time they were created," Titus said.

The tracks have been linked to three-toed species similar to the horned Dilophosaurus and five-toed animals similar to crocodiles.

The site, which is now closed to motorized traffic, was probably an oasis where early Jurassic dinosaurs found water and relief from desert-like temperatures, Titus said.

Matthews has taken similar photographs at a track site near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Those were taken with the help of a blimp.