Friday, 18 January 2013

Foot casts and photogrammetry in the Isle of Wight

I managed to get out into the field for a couple of days in early December with the intention of recording (using photogrammetry) some of the footcasts on the beach at Hanover Point on the Isle of Wight. I'd spent some time at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton where I'd given a scientific illustration and photogrammetry workshop and discussed current and future projects with a colleague at the University of Southampton.

It is possible the stretch of beach of the Isle of Wight at that runs from where the chalk cliffs meet the Vectis Formation at Compton Bay, along through the Wessex Formation eroding out at Brook and Brighstone Bays until the end of the Vectis at Cowlease Chine is my favourite place in the world. I can't afford to get there as much as I'd like, but it's never too far from my thoughts and I've spent many happy hours over the last two decades looking for dinosaur bones and other fossils with my wife and dog, and now it's the site of my research and has become even more important.

3D mesh of an ornithopod foot cast at Hanover Point, IOW.

Once on the beach I met my UoS colleague and a local collector from the island and we headed off to look over the site. The cliff at Hanover Point is famous for its foot casts, which originate from the crevasse splay sandstone that is interbedded with the green, red and grey marls that make up much of the Wessex Formation in this section of coastline. The sandstone outcrops on the beach north of Hanover Point and then rises through the cliff as you proceed south-east; at this point we're close the axis of the Brighstone anticline and a mile down the coast the beds dip in the other direction and disappear under the beach.

3D mesh of a large ornithopod footprint, Brook Bay, IOW. This cast is especially
deep and shows distinct edges crated by the ungual phalanges as they sank into the substrate.
Note it goes vertically down (we are looking at the base of the print).

There are many loose blocks on the beach and a fair few of these show some evidence of dinoturbation; the number runs into several tens over the length of the exposure and the whole underside of the bed probably represents a bioturbated surface. Traditionally these prints have been interpreted as being made by ornithopods but theropod, and possibly thyrephoran and sauropod prints can be found here too and some casts contain more than one print. All of the prints are individual and drop out of the lower surface of the sandstone bed as the softer sediment it sits on erodes from underneath it. The area is managed by the National Trust and it is against the law to remove any casts without permission; the site is widely visited by students and other interested parties specifically to view the prints, and this makes them a valuable resource for education and outreach.


I collected data on several casts and we inspected the full exposure before heading off to another site. A couple of the prints are shown here as 3D meshes processed in Photoscan and rendered in Cinema R13. Also here are the results of an experiment I tried whilst on site, where I attempted to record the crevasse splay sandstone in-situ in the cliff face. This was my first attempt at recording an outcrop using photogrammetry and the results speak for themselves, affirming it is possible to get good data on exposures of this size using this method over more expensive technologies such as Lidar. The above animation was created from data processed in Photoscan and rendered using Cinema R13.

You got to love photogrammetry!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

2013 and setting out on the path

The Christmas and New Year break gave me some time to reflect on the last couple of years of my life, on palaeontology and where I am now, and where I might be heading in the future. This introspective mood was triggered by the events of the last four months of the year which saw a distinct change in the way I was engaging with palaeontology and research, part of a wider arc of activity that had its roots back in the summer of 2010.

In July 2010 my wife and I went to dig dinosaurs in the Hell Creek of North Dakota and Montana. We'd been regular visitors to the Isle of Wight (off the south coast of the UK) for many years, going to search for dinosaur bones washed out of the island's cliffs of Wealden marl and sandstone. Nothing prepared us for the badlands: the searing heat, the biting insects; the rattlesnakes . . . also the sheer beauty of the place, the scale of the prairie and the badlands, and of course the dinosaurs. Lots of bits of dinosaurs. Heaven. During the week we were there we dug turtle graveyards, dinosaurs, prospected and found dinosaurs, dug some more, worked in the prep lab and talked palaeontology for a week . It would no exaggeration to say that week in the field (which wasn't all plain sailing due to circumstances beyond our control) was one of the best of my life, and I felt I had found my direction. But how to take this passion forward?

Skip to just over a year later, and we're sat in the back of a truck bouncing along a rough track in the desert of Utah. Along with the rest of the attendees in this and the other six trucks on the SVP field trip before the Las Vegas meeting, we're heading back to the highway after visiting a remote dinosaur trackway in the Warner Valley. During the hour or so we spent at this breathtaking location, I took some photographs of a dinosaur footprint that were my first attempts at photogrammetry and when Neffra Matthews handed me her laptop and I saw my images turned into a 3D model I knew this was it: science I could do myself. My world shifted on it's axis a fraction and things would never be the same. At the meeting itself I picked up a leaflet for a course at the University of Southampton, put it in my folder with all the other stuff I was collecting and headed off to the next presentation.

Back at home I started pursing the Southampton course, but it became apparent that it wasn't going to happen for various reasons including the dire economic situation. There was no way I could give up work and move south for a year (we live 200 miles to the north of Southampton) so it was deemed impractical. I was gutted (as a 45-year old man it felt as though my options were narrowing) as I knew I wanted to be more involved in palaeontology, and I wanted to learn and contribute. But how?

This blog was a starting point; one man's journey into the art of palaeontology. I had originally intended to make it solely about palaeo art and scientific illustration, and as I do scientific visualisations for the day job (mainly drug interactions at the molecular level) it made sense to blog about a subject I loved. I am surrounded by palaeontology books I have collected over the years and did a little myself so there was no shortage of material to go at. So I launched this blog and got a great reception from the mesozoic blogosphere and things were hunky-dory. I was off and doing something.

In the meantime, I became a research associate at Southampton and started doing science in earnest. I was concentrating on ichnology alongside photogrammetry and was working on my first poster, which was co-authored with Matteo Belvedere and Gareth Dyke and which was presented at EAVP in Spain in the summer of 2012. As the year progressed I became more involved, attending and presenting at DigitalFossil 2012 in Berlin and going to the SVP meeting at Raleigh, NC. Berlin was the highlight to be sure. I had never presented before and I got great feedback, and I was invited to co-host a photogrammetry workshop at the same meeting alongside Neffra Matthews, Brent Breithaupt and Peter Falkingham and this went very well, with high attendance and more very positive feedback; I hope we can do more in the future.

By this point though, Paleo Illustrata had lost its way a bit, and it had become 'One man's journey into the art and science of paleontology'. It dropped off one or two of the blogrolls for some reason despite getting a hit rate I was happy with, although it had become less about the art and more about the science. What I had realised was how much the science needed to inform the art, and as I got more into the science I got further away from my original art-based concept. It became less consistent in terms of subject and slightly more scattergun as I tried to cover all the bases as well as my deepening interest in the science of palaeontology. My research was continuing and as 2012 came to a close I presented a scientific illustration workshop at UoS and a couple of papers are being worked upon as the new year starts.

I have big plans for the coming year, and this blog will be a vital part of them. It will include more science, and the reason for this will become apparent in due course (if all goes to plan). It will include more personal observations and opinion because that's part of the journey. I will of course be continuing to address the subject of scientific illustration and paleoart, but it will be less from the angle of an enthusiastic amateur and more from a palaeotologist's point of view and I hope the merger of science and art will become more of a practical resource rather just than me commenting on other people's work (a task successfully fulfilled by people far more better at it than I).

So here goes for 2013. To all my loyal readers - thank you for sticking with me. For any new or returning readers, please stick around and hopefully some of my blather will be of interest. I've received encouragement and valuable advice from many of the people I've met in the last couple of years (and the years before, here in England) from professional palaeontologists to amateurs like myself with a deep love of the subject, and many of them I am proud to call my friends; their patience and generosity has been amazing. I'm very lucky to have a wonderful wife who has supported me throughout these two years, without that support I'd not have come as far as I have. For everyone, have a great 2013 and here's to a new year of palaeontology, ichnology and art. 

Finally a path is emerging and although I doubt it will be straightforward or without bumps and crossroads, but I can't wait to see where it takes me. Come along for the ride.