Back to the future: Washakie Medical Center scans 150 million-year-old foot

WORLAND — Examining bone injuries on a foot is nothing new for the Washakie Medical Center radiology team, but running a 64-slice CT scan on a 150 million-year-old bone was out of the ordinary for the team last Thursday, May 5. 

The metatarsal fossils are a project of Wyoming Dinosaur Center intern Jackson King. King said the fully intact foot of a Sauropod was found by a family at one of the public dig sites through the Center’s Dig For A Day program. 

He said the foot, named “Little Foot” by the WMC radiology team, was found about two years ago and it took time to carefully extract the fossils as there was rock encased around it as well as other fossils on top of it. There was also some preparation work that had to be completed before it was ready to be scanned. 

King, who was assigned the Little Foot project along with fellow team members, Ohav Harris and Maya Krygiel, said one of the most famous sayings in paleontology is that for every one hour in the field there are six hours in the lab. 

King said, “Scanning will allow us to see it digitally, as well as get rid of some of the dirt and rock to see it more clearly.” 

He said with advances in software they can also do comparative anatomy studies with public specimens that are in databases. He said then the fossil can be compared to other dinosaurs to try and get a genus. 

“We have a couple cool things going on with this foot. Something was broke and re-fixed itself. We don’t know if it’s pathology, but this is one thing we can do by looking at the different densities,” King said. 

He said pathology is when the fractures occurred during the dinosaur’s life and pathonomy is when they happen after death. Looking at the density of the fractures will help determine when they occurred. 

He said the foot is from a Sauropod, a big, long-necked dinosaur. 

King said at the public dig site where this foot was found, a variety of dinosaur species have been found, but mostly sauropods because they are so big. 

“Big bones are easier to preserve,” he said, but he added they do find a lot of allosaurus teeth. 

The bones are massive; sauropods can be anywhere from 40 feet to 140 feet. In showing a portion of the foot he said, “You can tell they are carrying a lot of weight.” 

He said scans are not completed on every fossil, just ones “we think are researched or we think that would need it.” 

King said it is rare to find a complete foot, but they had found four to five other complete feet at the site. This is the most recent find and the most unique. 

King has worked with the center for the past two summers and will be working again this summer. 

The radiology team, Nancy Bolt, Lareina Stewart, Jacob Power, Jackson King of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Dr. John Bramble, Carly Jeffers and Mandy Feather, had their own prep work to do before scanning what they deemed “Little Foot,” named after the dinosaur from “Land Before Time.” 

They quipped that they had to put a name in the computer for the scan and while the foot is not little, it fit since Little Foot was a long-necked Apatosaurus. 

They contacted the manufacturer of the CT scan, Siemen, and asked about scanning something as dense as a 150 million-year-old dinosaur fossil. They did not want the machine to overheat. They received the OK and did a test run on a rock, which proved to have no issues. They were then ready for Little Foot. 

“This is where modern technology meets 150 million years,” Bramble said. 

King said Tuesday that they received more than 2,000 images from the scan. The team has selected some of the photos and is just beginning its analysis. 

For King, working on the Little Foot project is somewhat of a dream come true. He went to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center many times as a boy, he said. 

“It’s amazing that the center allows interns to work on these projects and get started in our careers and in our research field,” King said.