When he's not hunting for dinosaur fossils in Antarctica or lecturing to his Augustana College students about prehistoric life, William Hammer helps Quad-City law enforcement agencies in their investigations by classifying unidentified bones.
Although some police departments have their own forensic anthropologist — someone who examines and identifies human skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies, local Illinois investigators call Hammer.
For many years, the world-renowned paleontologist has lent his knowledge and passion for examining artifacts from the past to serve the community.
In January 2012, the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Department discovered a carcass lodged in the surface of a frozen waterway off Barstow Road in Carbon Cliff.
In sub-zero temperatures, Lt. Ron Erickson, chief investigator for the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Department, dangled from an extended ladder truck over the frozen sheet of ice, chopped the ice and extricated the potential evidence — a spinal column with ribs attached wrapped in a plastic bag.
“I could pretty much tell right away that it wasn’t human, but we wanted to verify and be 100 percent,” said Erickson, who carried the remains in a body bag to Rock Island County Coroner Brian Gustafson, who then took the bones to Hammer.
That particular Sunday afternoon, Hammer did not expect the police to knock at his door.
“Usually, they (law enforcement personnel) call first, but this time, they just showed up,” Hammer said.
The doctorate-level professor immediately classified the remains as a deer’s rib cage.
“A forensic doctor might be able to tell them that it’s not a human, but I actually tell them what kind of animal it is, and I think they find that interesting,” Hammer said.
Gustafson keeps Hammer’s contact information in his cellphone and called him a “great asset to the community.”
“I couldn’t be happier to have him in our backyard,” Gustafson said, adding that most, if not all police agencies throughout Rock Island County use him. “Frequently, we’ll find bones dumped in bags on the side of the road, and most of the time, we don’t know if it’s a baby or a dog or a small child.”
Since 1977, Hammer has led several expeditions to Antarctica in search of fossil vertebrates. His teams have unearthed four new dinosaur species.
Most notably, in 1991, Hammer discovered the continent’s only known carnivorous dinosaur, the Cryolophosaurus elliotti, meaning “frozen crested lizard.”
Currently, its bones remain in a lab at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where Hammer also is a research associate.
A cast of the dinosaur greets visitors and students at the Fryxell Geology Museum on Augustana College’s campus, where Hammer has been a faculty member and director of the museum since 1981.
Pete Makovicky, paleontologist and curator of dinosaurs at The Field Museum in Chicago, said Hammer, who is most known for his Jurassic explorations, has the ability to classify remains or bones “based on variations that almost seem imperceptible.”
“In terms of human remains, I don’t think we get those here at the museum in Chicago,” said Makovicky, who ventured to Antarctica in 2011 with Hammer and discovered two new herbivore dinosaur species. “The cops here have a much bigger arsenal of tools for that sort of thing.”
Serving the community
Erickson said Hammer’s expertise and willingness to help expedites investigations and also lowers costs for local law enforcement agencies.
“He (Hammer) keeps us from spinning our wheels on an investigation by giving us a real-time analysis,” Erickson said. “And he could easily bill us for his services, but he doesn’t.
“He’s about as laid back as they get, and he has no problem sharing his knowledge because he’s an instructor, and that’s what he does.”
Hammer said he enjoys having a hand in local investigations on the forensics side, especially when police arrive at his front door, saving him from a few household chores on a Sunday afternoon.
"It's interesting," Hammer said recently inside the paleontology lab at Augustana's Swenson Hall of Geosciences. "If you look at enough different skeletons, it's pretty easy to differentiate and recognize them."
But sometimes amateur geologists he meets disagree with his classifications, he said.
About five times each year, Hammer said members of the community bring him what they assume to be valuable fossils.
Although someone once brought him a mastodon tooth from Prophetstown, Hammer said “a lot of what the public brings in is bogus.”
Makovicky said a lot of fossils remain in the Midwest, but “everyone wants to find a dinosaur, so they’ll often misinterpret what’s part of an invertebrate fossil.”
"You get people who, for whatever reason, fixate on what they found being something valuable, and they get upset when you tell them it’s a fossil or a mineral that’s not really valuable," Makoviky added.
A few years ago, Hammer said he received a call from a man south of Des Moines who claimed he discovered fossilized dinosaur skin.
"And I told him dinosaur skin doesn't fossilize because it rots away," said Hammer, adding that central Iowa does not contain the specific species of rocks that carry dinosaur remains. "But he was convinced, so he drove three hours to show it to me."
Upon arrival, Hammer told the man it was a stromatoporoid, a class of aquatic invertebrates from the Devonian period that were common more than 350 million years ago.
"Sometimes, they accept it, but sometimes, they get (angry), like it's my fault," he said.