Measuring Dinosaur Speed from Trackways

J Bret Bennington
Hofstra University
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This activity demonstrates how measurements taken from fossil trackways can be used to estimate the speed at which extinct animals were moving when they made the trackways, providing students the opportunity to collect and analyze quantitative data.

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Undergraduate elective natural science course "Dinosaurs and the Mesozoic World".
Undergraduate elective upper level geology course on Paleontology.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Requires basic math and spreadsheet skills.

How the activity is situated in the course

Stand alone exercise.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Biomechanical analysis of speeds of extinct organisms from trackway fossils.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Evaluation of published mathematical model using experimental data collected by students.

Other skills goals for this activity

Basic collection and organization of quantitative data using spreadsheets.
Working as a group to collect data.
Basic computational skills - algebraic manipulation and unit conversions.
Using both graphical and formula-based methods to analyze data.
Analysis of sources of error in a quantitative analysis.

Description of the activity/assignment

By measuring the spacing of fossil footprints it is possible to estimate the speed of the trackmaker, but only after making several assumptions based on footprint size and the behavior of a wide range of living animals. A widely applied method for estimating speed from trackways was developed through the research of R. McNeill Alexander, an expert in biomechanics. This lab is a group exercise designed to lead students step-by-step through the methods and principles involved in estimating speed of movement from trackway data using Alexander's method. First students test the method on humans to see how accurate it is, and then they apply it to measurements taken from a variety of dinosaur trackways. This activity involves having students collect speed and footprint data on subjects while they are running and walking. The footprint data are analyzed and the speed estimates are compared to the actual measured speeds. Students then collect trackway measurements from published illustrations of dinosaur trackways to estimate dinosaur speeds. Students calculate the percent error for their experimental estimates and use this to interpret the results obtained from dinosaur trackways. Spreadsheets may be used to record and carry out the calculations in the analysis. Students are asked to discuss the significance of their results to ongoing debates over the physical capabilities of dinosaurs.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Lab calculations and question responses are graded.

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