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ANTARCTIC DINOSAUR EXPEDITION
I am attaching an article that appeared in The Sunday Chicago Tribune that
may be of interest to members of this list. Comments and opinions would be
HOT DISCOVERY IN COLD CLIMATE
FINDING ANTARCTIC DINOSAUR PUT AUGUSTANA ON THE MAP
One of the hazards of hunting dinosaur bones in Antarctica is that, if
you're not prepared, your breath can fall on your head in the middle of a
That's a lesson students might learn in one of William Hammer's
paleontology classes at Augustana College in Rock Island. Or, if they are
really lucky, they actually experience it on one of Hammer's three-month
expeditions to Antarctica.
Hammer is an oddity. He is one of the biggest names in paleontology but
teaches at a school so small it has no paleontology major and no graduate
degree program of any kind.
This situation has delighted Augustana's undergraduates since Hammer, 44,
arrived there in 1981. Because he has no coterie of graduate students, he
usually takes an undergraduate with him on his Antarctic expeditions.
Some field trip. On his last expedition, from November 1990 to January
1991, Hammer and his five-member crew recovered the first dinosaur bones
found in Antarctica.
Three of the people with him were what Hammer calls his "Auggies," his
students and ex-students.
One first went to Antarctica in 1985-1986 as an Augustana senior, and went
back in 1990, when another of the party was a student who had just got his
bachelor's degree at Augustana.
The third, William Hickerson, 36, is still working on his doctorate at the
University of Iowa.
But as a sort of technical assistant to Hammer, he is in the enviable
position of already co-writing papers on one of history's great
"I have always managed to work in one undergraduate on my Antarctic
trips," Hammer said. "It's unusual, I suppose, but I don't have graduate
students here. The most important thing to me, anyway, is to take along
people I know well, people I can trust to do the work and to stand the
isolation and extreme conditions down there."
During the 1990-1991 Antarctic "summer" season, Hammer and his crew were
about 400 miles from the South Pole, camping and working near Mt.
Kirkpatrick, where temperatures often were 25 degrees below zero.
Staying near the bone sites the entire season, they slept, cooked and ate
in two-man tents that measure only seven square feet inside.
The interior is lined with a thin netting. It prevents water vapor from
the occupants' breath and cook stoves from collecting and freezing into
sheets of ice that would otherwise break off and fall back on them.
"You get up around 7 a.m., and you boil water for the next two hours to
get breakfast together and prepare for the rest of the day," Hickerson said.
"Basically, you stock two kinds of food, freeze dried and frozen. Even
cans of soup and pork and beans are frozen solid. For breakfast, we'd usually
have coffee and cold cereal."
As they worked outside several miles from their camp during the day, they
packed lunches, usually just Thermoses of soup and candy and granola bars.
"It took an hour or two to get to the work site from the camp, so we
wouldn't get back until 6 or 7 at night, and then we'd have to boil water and
thaw things out for two hours, again," Hickerson said.
The men took turns cooking dinner, thawing and serving things like steaks
and lobster tails.
"I liked to have a can of beer before I went to bed," Hickerson said, "but
not much more than that, because you are so tired by then and had to thaw
that out, too."
It wasn't all that long ago that Hickerson was a Quad Cities "local"
making his living in a warehouse instead of tracking down old bones on the
bottom of the world. He was 24 before his wife talked him into giving college
a try, starting at a Rock Island junior college.
After transferring to Augustana, he got a degree in geology in 1988
studying under Hammer. He was studying for a master's degree in paleontology
at Iowa when Hammer asked him to go to Antarctica in 1990.
Hammer himself first went to Antarctica as a graduate student at Wayne
State University, working for his mentor, John Cosgriff. In 1977 they went
looking for and found fossils of reptiles and amphibians that roamed the
Earth in the Triassic period, millions of years before dinosaurs began to
After Hammer got his Ph.D. in 1979, he and Cosgriff continued to work
together, nailing down National Science Foundation grants for their Antarctic
forays. But when Cosgriff became ill and died of a degenerative nerve disease
in 1985, Hammer became the main figure in Antarctic paleontological work.
Hammer was already justly famous in the paleontological world for his
Triassic "finds." His workshop has drawers brimming with skeletons nearly a
quarter billion years old.
"We kind of thought our 1990-1991 trip would be the last one to get
funding," Hammer said, "because we had pretty much mined the possible sites
for Triassic finds.
"There was a strong suspicion that dinosaurs lived in Antarctica, but
there was never much hope of finding them. Most of the rock there is much
older than what you would find dinosaur bones in. Jurassic rock formations
(in Antarctica) were weathered away a long time ago. It just isn't
But in early January 1991, he and his crew were crating up the last of the
Triassic they had found on a 9,000-foot slope of Mt. Kirkpatrick.
They were wondering where they would go next in their remaining time in
Antarctica when David Elliot, an Ohio State volcanologist radioed them. He,
too, was on Mt. Kirkpatrick, and at the 12,500-foot elevation had found some
The bones, it turned out, were in a 200-million-year-old Jurassic-period
clay and volcanic ash riverbank turned to rock.
Hammer and his crew immediately knew they were looking at dinosaur
remains. For the the first few days they kept quiet as they began
jackhammering out 5,000 pounds of bone-bearing rock, helicoptering it off the
But when the jackhammer broke down, they had to radio to McMurdo, the main
American supply base in Antarctica.
Word of Hammer's dinosaurs soon spread among the 1,000 American scientists
working in far-flung Antarctic camps. It took only a day for an LC-130
transport supply plane to arrive at Hammer's base camp. The big rear doors
opened to reveal the only cargo aboard, a crate with a jackhammer.
At the end of the season, all the far-flung scientists came from their
field camps to McMurdo before being flown home to America. Somebody asked
Hammer to go to the McMurdo mess hall and make a brief presentation on his
When Hammer arrived, the mess hall was jammed. Dinosaurs, it seems, are a
big box-office draw for scientists too.
Since they've been back, Hammer and Hickerson have been meticulously
separating bones from the rock they brought home. Several surprises have
emerged, some slightly grisly.
Their most spectacular find was more than half a complete skeleton of a
previously undiscovered genus and species of dinosaur, a 25-foot-long,
meat-eating hunter. They named it "crylophosaurus," meaning "frozen crested
reptile" because of a distinguishing, bony pompadour-like crest on its
Showing it roamed Antarctica when every continent in the world was
connected, making up one continent called "Pangea," changes historical
climatic theories. It means the world had a milder climate 200 million years
ago than previously thought.
Hammer eventually will give the specimen to the Field Museum of Natural
History in Chicago for permanent display.
Working in a converted 19th Century stable on Augustana's rolling campus,
Hammer and Hickerson have also examined some bones of another big dinosaur, a
plant-eating prosauropod about 25 feet long.
Some of the prosauropod's bones were in the crylophosaurus' throat,
leading Hammer to surmise that the hunter had choked to death while eating
the other dinosaur.
Crylophosaurus' bones were scattered along the Jurassic age riverbank.
Hammer believes it was pulled apart shortly after it died by scavengers.
The only evidence of these scavengers are a few teeth that apparently
broke off while they dined on the dead crylophosaurus' leg. The small, pointy
teeth reveal perfectly serrated edges that look like they were machined in a
steak knife factory.
Last year Hammer assigned one of his undergrads, suburban Brookfield
native Rich Slaughter, 20, to analyze and classify all the dinosaur teeth as
they came out of the rock. Slaughter already has published a paper on the
subject in a scholarly journal.
A 1991 college news release about the Antarctic expedition that Augustana
sent to him when he was still in high school, Slaughter said, persuaded him
to enroll there.
"I never get sick of looking at the bones," Slaughter said. "Every time my
family comes over from Chicago, I bring them here to the lab to show them
Hammer said he has remained at Augustana rather than moving to a bigger
research university because he likes teaching on the undergraduate level.
"Everybody has to teach here," he said. "I teach five classes a year. That
means I don't get papers out as fast as I might in a bigger school where I
wouldn't teach as much, but I enjoy teaching and working with kids."
At 134 years old, Lutheran-founded Augustana is a "Halls of Ivy" sort of
place that sells its intimate, personalized approach to higher education as
an alternative to giant universities. The college stresses teaching but
encourages faculty to do research and to involve their students in the
That means undergrads get to use high-tech equipment such as electron
microscopes that they would never be allowed to touch in most research
The magnitude and manner of Hammer's research overwhelm that of anybody
else's at Augustana. It has merited a $260,000 grant this spring from the
National Science Foundation for another trip to Antarctica.
And Hammer and Hickerson already are making plans about whom to take with
"This next trip (1995-96) will be my fifth down there," Hammer said, "so
I'm getting to be one of the old Antarctic hands. At some point I have to
start thinking about slowing down.
"I've got enough crates of unstudied material I brought back on earlier
trips to keep me busy for the next 10 years. At some time I'll have to say
I've collected enough and stop, but not yet."
PHOTO (color): This tooth in rock is a part of the crylophosaurus specimen
that will ultimately be donated to the Field Museum.
PHOTOS (color): Augustana College paleontology teacher William Hammer
(above) and his 5-member crew went to Antarctica and brought back bones of a
dinosaur they call a crylophosaurus (left), which means ``frozen crested
reptile.'' The bones of the 25-foot-long, meat-eating hunter were the first
dinosaur bones ever found in Antarctica.
PHOTO: The crylophosaurus bones were found in a 200-million-year-old
Jurassic-period clay and volcanic ash riverbank turned to rock. The bones in
the rock are marked in the Augustana lab. Tribune photos by Phil Greer.