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Drones and dinos: Modern tech helps map tracks

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Dinosaurs once roamed the Land of Enchantment when a great sea covered the middle of what is now North America.

Physical evidence of this can be seen around the state including at Clayton Lake State Park in northeastern New Mexico, where a trove of dinosaur tracks greet the public. The fossil trackway of dinosaurs draws interest from around the globe.

bright spotNow New Mexico State Parks is teaming up with students at Central New Mexico Community College and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science to map out the footprints. Park officials installed a catwalk that encircles the track site area, allowing visitors easy access and a chance to view the footprints up close.

Spencer Lucas, a curator of paleontology at the museum, said there are only about a half dozen dinosaur footprint sites in the United States located in public places. Footprints, he said can give scientists a lot of information. In addition to the type of dinosaur that left the track, footprints reveal how tall and long a dinosaur was and how fast it walked. He said the hundreds of tracks found at Clayton Lake, which is about 4½ hours from Albuquerque, are from four different species of dinosaurs and were all made within a year.

“The Clayton Lake site is a treasure,” he said. “The track sites are about 100 million years old and along an ancient sea coast.”

Bryan Burns is a student participating in the project. He said he’s always had an interest in drone technology and is looking forward to using it for scientific research.

“I like all the different ways we can survey different locations,” he said. “We will be one of the first ones to do something like this at the site.”

Students will use a drone to photograph the track sites, lasers to scan the entire site and a digital camera on the ground for close-up shots. They will then use photogrammetric software to convert the photos into 3-D images and the other data to map out the area.

CNM instructor Rick Watson said the students are enrolled in the school’s new unmanned aircraft systems certificate program. The students will fly the drones from different heights in order to record a variety of details. Once the project is complete, they will place the photographs, 3-D models, maps and other findings on a website.

“The public will be able to access to the website,” he said. “It’s designed to help people explore the track site from anywhere in the world.”

Clayton Lake is man-made and was created when officials dammed up Seneca Creek north of Clayton in the 1960s. Construction of the dam’s spillway unveiled the tracks, which were embedded in sandstone.

Rick Leonhardt, a semi-retired psychotherapist, is one of the students working on the projects. His first career, he said, was as a geologist and now practices it as a hobby. This will be his first time visiting the Clayton Lake site.

“This will help us digitally preserve these tracks,” he said. “We are putting procedures in place to collect the data so others can duplicate the process in the future.”

Lucas said preservation is important because the footprints are out in the open and susceptible to erosion. As some erode, he said, others are revealed.

“The museum, one of our goals and one of our primary missions is to educate New Mexicans on our natural history,” Lucas said. “This will help improve the way we gather data. This state as an outdoor laboratory is almost unparalleled. Really, how many places in the country do we have that you can go see dinosaur tracks?”

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