Guest Post: Tracking Dinosaurs en-masse

Sadly I wasn’t able to get across to the recent conference on dinosaur tracks that was held in Obernkirchen, Germany. However, occasional Musings contributor Peter Falkingham did make it, and he was kind enough to write up an illustrated review of proceedings.

In mid-April, I was fortunate enough to visit one of those rare occurences – a conference that was very fun, very interesting, and extremely well organised. In Germany, from the 14th to the 17th of April, 2011, was the Dinosaur Track Symposium.  The conference took the unique (to me at least) form of talks in the morning, followed by a field trip in the afternoon on each day.  The talks were held in a monastery of all places, in the picturesque town of Obernkirchen.

Figure 1 - Obernkirchen, the conference town.

Whilst I shall endeavour to mention each of the speakers, I only have room to note the speakers themselves, and not all co-authors. And of course there were numerous posters, but sadly I don’t have room to mention them all.

Figure 2 - Posters in the Monastery

The first day began with opening speeches from the conference organiser Annette Richter, and the local bodies which had provided funding for the conference. The conference then began in earnest, with a talk from Jong-Deok Lim on tracksites from Korea providing evidence for various behaviours including pack hunging.  This was followed by a talk from James Farlow on the vairaibility of footprint shape among emus, and the ramifications for identifying dinosaur trackmakers. The third talk of the morning was by Daniel Marty and colleagues about excavations of dinosaur tracks in Switzerland. The session then ended with talks from two of the conference organisers, Annette Richter and Torsten van der Lubbe, who both discussed aspects of the local dinosaur tracks around Obernkirchen.

After the morning’s talks, and subsequent lunch, we packed ourselves onto two buses and headed for a local quarry to have a look at the dinosaur tracks.  The quarry had two areas absolutely covered in dinosaur tracks.  First we visted an upper layer, displaying medium to large (50-60 cm) tridactyl tracks, where there was much discussion as to their taphonmy and trackmaker (Theropod, or Ornithopod? Surface track or undertrack?).  The delegates were then led to a lower layer dubbed the “Chicken Yard” where numerous didactyl tracks could be seen along with some rather nice didactyl (two-toed) trackways.

Figure 3 - Dinosaur ichnologists enjoying the "Chicken Yard"

The evening saw the conference delegates attend a public talk by Hartmut Haubold, held in the local church.  Despite being entirely in German, interesting slides and pictures of tracks kept the English speaking delegates entertained.

Day two was unique during the conference in that we had a full morning AND afternoon of talks before being treated to our field trip. Fortunately, being a group of dinosaur ichnologists, this was hardly a chore. The talks began with Phil Manning discussing modern (and future) experimental methods in vertebrate ichnology, and Daniel Marty presenting on the formation, taphonomy, and preservation of tracks.  These were followed by my talk on the problems associated with applying objective methods to subjective track outlines, and Martin Whyte and Mike Romano’s talk on stegosaur swimming tracks from Yorkshire (UK).

The second session began with Anthony Romillio’s reinterpretation of the Lark Quarry site in Australia, followed by Mohammed Al Wosabi then Anne Schulp, presenting new tracks from Yemen, and then Alexander Wagensommer showing us tracks from Madagascar.  After lunch, Andrew Milner gave a talk on dinosaur tracks from Utah and discussed the palaeoenvironment, Masaki Matsukawa explored dinosaur faunal change at the Jurassic-Cretaceous transition in East Asia, Richard McCrea continued the Jurassic-Cretaceous faunal change theme albeit in western Canada, and then to finish the session Lisa Buckley described a novel avian ichnotaxon from British Colombia.

The final session of the day saw Christian Meyer discussing sauropods and stargates in a hitchhikers guide to Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous Swiss dinosaur tracks. Stephen Gatesy then presented work on substrate deformation beneath the foot using 3D visualisation techniques, and this was followed by Cory Kumagai’s talk on Crocodile foot morphology through ontogeny.  The final talk of the day was by Oliver Wings about the tracksite in Münchehagen that we would visit the next day.

After the talks, and a brief break for getting changed into field gear once more, we boarded two buses and set off to the quarry we had visited the day before.  This time, however, things were somewhat different.  To begin with, we were encouraged into a large building through the use of free beer and wine (a highly successful encouragement). In the building, the quarry owner spoke a few remarks about the tracks. By now, darkness had descended, but the “Chicken Yard” had been illuminated in various blue and red low angle lights, producing one of the most spectacular sights of tracks.  It’s testament to how amazing the tracks were, and how incredible the lighting, that many of us forgot about the free beer and wine entirely and remained on the track site until we were called away.  I’m sure even non-ichnologists would have been equally as enthralled!

Figure 4 - The "Chicken Yard" at night, mere moments before some 50-60 palaeontologists piled onto it.

The third day’s first session saw a shift to bird-oriented talks, firstly with Xu Xing and then Corwin Sullivan discussion phylogenies of Avian theropods, and the implications of their foot morphology. Denver Fowler’s talk discussed the use of avian theropod arms as stabilisers during prey capture, and touched on potential origins of flapping flight.  The second session focused on didactly tracks, and was begun by Martin Lockley with discussions about two-toed ‘raptor’ tracks through time.  This was followed up first by Rihui Li with a presentation on Chinese Early Cretaceous didactyl tracks, and then by Alexander Mudroch and didactyl tracks from Niger.

After the talks, we once again rode buses in search of dinosaur tracks.  This time, we went to the DinoPark at Münchehagen where we were able to see some fantastic tridactly tracks in a nearby [active] sandstone quarry, and then some excellent sauropod tracks in the Dino Park itself. Now, many palaeontologists have indulged and nurtured their inner child in order to pursue a career in studying dinosaurs, and I’m no exception; which is why the giant, life-sized plastic dinosaurs around the DinoPark were probably as exciting as the real tracks! Sometimes, scientific language and analysis goes out of the window when confronted with a life-size rearing sauropod; the best I could do when commenting to Martin Bäker was:

“That’s big!”

“Yes Peter…  They’re dinosaurs.”

Figure 5 - They really were big!

Special mention should be given to the human history section of the park, in which clothes shop mannequins had been used to represent early man.  Apparently our ancestors were not unlike the heroine from the 60’s film One Million Years B.C.!

Figure 6 - Scientifically accurate portrayal of our ancestors? Or making the most of the resources available?

After the incredible experience at the DinoPark, the delegates were treated to a rather excellent banquet at the historical moated castle of Hülsede, where great food, drink, and history combined to make a fantastic evening.

The fourth and final day was kicked off by a double bill from Brent Breithaupt, first to talk about interpreting theropod communities, and then to cover for Neffra Matthews in speaking about the history of photogrammetry. The last talk of the session was by Hartmut Haubold who presented the notion of “phantomtaxa” – ichnotaxa including variation laterally and horizontally.

After a coffee break, we returned for the final talk session, consisting of only two speakers; José Moratalla and Octavio Mateus who presented dinosaur movemetns through a Spanish lacustrine system, and new dinosaur and pterosaur tracksites from Portugal respectively.

After the talks, the delegates were all handed packed lunches and herded once more to the buses. Our final excursion took us to the Centre for Geosciences of the University of Göttingen where a special exhibition was opened showcasing numerous exceptional fossils including dinosaur tracks and bones, crocodiles, turtles, icthyosaurs, and many others from the Ballerstedt collection. As if the fossils weren’t enough, we were also treated to food – dinosaur track shaped cheese and salami on bread!

Figure 7 - A three toed dinosaur track from Obernkirchen. Visible tape measure ~ 40 cm

With our minds and bellies full, the delegates said their farewells to each other, thanked the organisers for a fantastic meeting, and boarded the buses for the final

3 Responses to “Guest Post: Tracking Dinosaurs en-masse”

  1. 1 Mark Robinson 29/04/2011 at 4:20 am

    Thanks Peter, sounds like it was fun (and nothing wrong with that). Do you have a dating for the two layers of trackways in the first quarry?

  2. 3 Richard 30/04/2011 at 1:03 pm

    This site is in the Obernkirchen Sandstone, isn’t it? That would make them lowermost Lower Cretaceous (Berriasian), approx 140-145 million years old.

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