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Frozen bones warm heart of professor


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Augustana College professor Bill Hammer has drawn worldwide attention to the Rock Island college's geology department since he discovered the oldest dinosaur remains ever found in Antarctica. A few years later, he discovered skeletons of a crocodile-like amphibian that predated its dinosaur relatives by 30 to 40 million years.

ROCK ISLAND -- Dinosaur discoveries by Augustana College professor Bill Hammer give the Quad-Cities a rare distinction that will not be threatened by extinction.

Mr. Hammer's 1991 discovery of the oldest dinosaur remains ever found in Antarctica captured international headlines. About four years later, he did it again by discovering skeletons of a crocodile-like amphibian, which predated its dinosaur relatives by 30 to 40 million years.

Visitors from around the world have traveled to Augustana College to take a look at the fossils. Reports of Mr. Hammer's historic discoveries have been chronicled in national publications such as Science Journal, National Geographic and Discover magazines.

``Because they are still the first and only dinosaurs discovered in Antarctica, and all of the attention and interest it's gotten, I was also asked to do a national lecture tour last year with the American Association of Petroleum Geologists,'' Mr. Hammer said.

The lecture series led him from the East Coast to Colorado, Canada and Alaska. He's also lectured about his discoveries overseas, including in Italy and Japan. In June, he plans to speak in South America.

Fossils he found also will take an international tour this year and be put on display in Japan for about three months.

Such fame earned by Mr. Hammer's find have boosted the enrollment of top-notch students in Augustana's geology department, he said. ``We've always had a good reputation in geology, but this has gotten our name out nationally.''

By extension, it also gives Rock Island and the Quad-Cities some welcome international exposure, Mr. Hammer said.

The fossils enhance an already-impressive collection in the Fryxell Museum, named after the founder of the college's geology department, Fritiof Fryxell. Augustana's geology department has been rated in the top 1 percent of such academic programs in the nation, and the college's museum collection is among the best of its size in the country, not counting Mr. Hammer's Antarctic finds, he said.

A fully mounted skeleton of the crocodile-like amphibian he found in 1995 is expected to be displayed on campus sometime next summer, Mr. Hammer said.

He has led five expeditions to Antarctica, and has made preliminary plans to return in 1999, he said. He hopes to go back to the same general area where he discovered ``Cryolophosaurus Ellioti,'' in 1991.

The dinosaur's name means ``frozen crested dinosaur,'' according to earlier reports. It was about 12-feet tall, 25-feet long and 200 million years old. It had two small horns, a fan-like crest above its eyes and ate meat.

Mr. Hammer's teams have brought back thousands of pounds of rock-encased fossils for study. Team members have included Jim Collinson, a 1960 Augustana College graduate and retired chairman of Ohio State University's geology department; Bill Hickerson, a 1988 Augustana alumnus; and Rob Andress, a 1995 Augie graduate from Moline.

Each expedition has lasted 10 to 12 weeks, usually during the Antarctic ``summer'' from November through February. Temperatures then usually reach 5 degrees above zero and winds diminish to less than 40 miles per hour.

Mr. Hammer believes the climate of Antarctica was much milder some 200 million years ago, and the fossil discoveries lend support to that theory, he said.

Dinosaurs may have migrated, he said in an earlier interview. Antarctica's climate during the Jurassic period may have been similar to northern California's climate of today. His find also adds support to a theory that Antarctica, Australia, Africa and other regions once were part of a single land mass called Gondwanaland.

-- By Leon Lagerstam (February 9, 1998)

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