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Aug. 2, 2006
Contact: Brandis Griffith, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

No bones about it: KU researchers find rare dinosaur skin impression

An up-close look at the cast shows multiple polygonal shapes, attached by thin spurs of skin.

An up-close look at the cast shows multiple polygonal shapes, attached by thin spurs of skin. KU researchers believe this is the texture of skin on the sauropodís toe.

The stone cast of a dinosaur footprint

The stone cast of a dinosaur footprint is difficult to notice for the untrained eye, but KU researchers say the two depressions on either side of the ridge in the center were made by the dinosaurís toe.

LAWRENCE — It’s a rare occasion when a scientist gets an up-close look at dinosaur skin — or at least the fossilized impression of dinosaur skin.

If you were a dinosaur, you could count the number of times it’s happened on one foot.

Brian Platt, a doctoral student in geology at the University of Kansas, traveled to Wyoming last spring for his research project. At a recently discovered dinosaur track site at the Jurassic Morrison Formation, Platt and his adviser, Steve Hasiotis, associate professor of geology at KU, examined multiple tracks to find impressions of dino-skin, left by such sauropods as Brachiosaurus or Apatosaurus.

“The way the site is, the tracks are preserved as natural casts on the underside of sandstone. Because they’re underneath the sandstone you can’t see the tracks unless they weather away,” Platt said.

To the untrained eye, the casts look more like small boulders tucked at the bottom of a layer of rock.

But under one cast Hasiotis found a textured surface made of raised polygonal shapes with about five or six sides, each about a centimeter in width. In between the tiny shapes, the skin appeared to recess into a v-shape, attached by small spurs of skin.

Hasiotis assigned the findings to Platt for his research project.

“It’s weird because when its foot traveled in and out of sediment it should have smeared the track, so that (skin impression) is rare to have,” Platt said. “The foot needs to not smear the track in order to have an impression.”

Platt said skin impressions of sauropods are rare — this is only the second one ever identified in North America.

“A lot of early paleontologists, when they found these sauropod skeletons, they’d only be interested in the bones,” Platt said. “They kind of destroyed the skin impressions because they weren’t even looking for them.”

Platt said by looking at skin impressions and distortions in the skin pattern, researchers can find how the animal walked, how it shifted its weight, whether it dragged its feet or which direction the foot was pointed when walking.

Palaios, a journal that emphasizes the impact of life on Earth’s history, published Platt’s and Hasiotis’ findings in June.

Platt and Hasiotis also examined multiple sauropod footprints that appeared to show individual toes.

“Another mystery is most sauropod dinosaurs had a thumb claw almost never preserved in footprints. One of the prints at the site has an impression from the thumb. It looks like the dinosaur was hitchhiking,” Platt said.

That thumb print also showed evidence of having had a pad on it, as did the other foot tracks.

“There’s been debate about if the dinosaurs had footpads, what did they resemble? Just about every terrestrial vertebrate has footpads on their feet,” said Hasiotis. “Without those footpads, the dinosaurs’ feet probably would have been destroyed, because we’re talking about a 40- to 100-ton animal.”

Platt’s research continues in the fall with studies on the soil, climate and moisture of the ground during the late Jurassic age.

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