Students Use Drones To Map Dinosaur Tracks In New Mexico

New Mexico college students are using drones to help map the location of dinosaur tracks at a state park, the latest project to use drone technology to gather data from historical sites in the American West.

By Stephanie Reid

Dinosaurs once roamed what is now New Mexico when a great sea covered the middle of 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.

New Mexico State Parks recently announced it is teaming up with Central New Mexico Community College students and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science to map out the footprints at Clayton Lake State Park, the Albuquerque Journal reports.

Central New Mexico Community College instructor Rick Watson says  students that are enrolled in the school’s new unmanned aircraft systems certificate program will fly the drones from different heights in order to record a variety of details. Once the project is complete, students 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.”

There are only about a half dozen dinosaur footprint sites in the United States located in public places. Footprints 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. Spencer Lucas, a curator of paleontology at the museum, 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,” Lucas said. “The track sites are about 100 million years old and along an ancient sea coast.”

Clayton Lake 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 and had this to say:

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

Preservation is important because the footprints are out in the open and susceptible to erosion. As some erode, others are revealed. Drones can help with retaining this history so it can be available to the generations that come.

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