Trento, Italy: Throughout Trentino, Italy, many signs have been left by the dinosaur giants that trod the beaches and dominated the landscape millions of years ago. Icnologists – scientists who study the traces of animal behaviour – have long been trying to discover more about the types of animals that once roamed the earth.
Coming to their aid are new 3-D technologies developed by the FBK Trento research centre. These noninvasive and extremely precise methods, based on photogrammetry and 3D laser scanning, offer documentation of fossils that is more accurate than previous methods.
Continuing a collaborative relationship that began a number of years ago, the researchers Fabio Remondino, Giorgio Agugiaro, Alessandro Rizzi and Stefano Girardi of the 3-D Optical Metrology (3DOM) research unit of the Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Trento worked with the geologists of the Tridentino Museum of Natural History (MTSN) to complete the 3-D recording and digital archiving of numerous dinosaur footprints and tracks.
Through experiments and tests conducted in the field, FBK researchers developed a method that yielded fascinating results, producing reconstructions of the dinosaur footprints in a digital rather than physical format. Through specific software, the prints left by dinosaurs can now be viewed on a computer monitor. This allows researchers to analyse the images quickly and from any angle, rotating them in space, turning them upside down, or zooming in and out, all of which can be done with such precision as to reveal details that would be invisible to the naked eye. The acquisition process also allows researchers to study the actual site where the prints were found – whether in a tunnel, a cave or outdoors – and to reproduce it faithfully in 3-D.
“By using a 3-D laser scanner, a print is reproduced in 3D with a precision far superior to the capabilities of the human eye,” said Avanzini. “To give an idea of depth, different colours are attributed to different levels and the virtual object can be analysed and processed to extract the largest amount of information possible. All the data regarding the print is protected from weathering and from intrinsic deterioration. Laser scanning techniques also offer the advantage of recreating footprints and even sequences of prints from inaccessible places in 3D, allowing them to be compared – practically automatically – with other prints or skeletons, offering valuable information about the animal that made them.”
These new tools therefore offer significant support for conventional measurement methods.
“The potential of the 3-D surveying methods being developed by the 3DOM unit at that time seemed perfect for revealing the morphology of footprints, on the basis of which the humans responsible for them, and how these humans walked, could be reconstructed. This collaboration was then continued in projects to acquire dinosaur footprints and prehistoric reptile prints in general in many other locations in Italy,” Avanzini said.
When asked whether 3-D technology represents the future of paleontology he added, “It’s hard to say. Undoubtedly, laser scanning has represented a major step forward in documentation, with its ability to archive and exchange data almost in real time. It is also true, however, that the costs of these instruments – which are still very high – represent a significant limitation. On the other hand, digital photogrammetry, used in conjunction with automatic image correlation, seems to be much more promising.”