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Hobbyist’s Mystery Fossil Leads to Discovery

Dr. Ben Dattilo measuring Phosphatic rock layer in Northern Kentucky with University of Cincinnati student Christopher D. Aucoin.

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Dr. Ben Dattilo measuring Phosphatic rock layer in Northern Kentucky with University of Cincinnati student Christopher D. Aucoin.
Written by: Zachary D. ElickMarch 30, 2016

The element Phosphorus is one of the building blocks of life, according to geoscience professor Ben Dattilo.

Phosphorus itself, or phosphate, is a part of every animal and every plant. Every living thing has phosphate in it,” he said. “Without Phosphorus we die. Period.”

Deposits of the element are mined and collected worldwide to make fertilizers used to grow crops. Yet, the process by which Phosphatic deposits are created is still not well understood, Dattilo said.

Dattilo, along with a fellow IPFW professor Winfried S. Peters, IPFW student Jessie Reeder and several other researchers from different institutions have made this process a little more clear with a new study published in the March issue of the scientific journal PALAIOS.

The study investigates a new find by amateur paleontologist Bill Heimbrock that challenges preconceived notions about the Ordovician period, an era that spanned from about 485 million to 445 million years ago.

Despite years of experience hunting for fossils, Heimbrock, who is a member of the Cinncinatti-based amateur paleontology club Dry Dredgers, was puzzled by a fossil he found in northern Kentucky.

“I was walking along a road I often take looking for fossils … I noticed a rock with yellow and white dots all over them,” he said. “I picked up the rock, which was about the size of my fist, and examined it and noticed these tiny dots were snails and tiny clams in it.”

Heimbrock eventually came to the conclusion that what he thought were tiny clams in the rock were actually phosphatic deposits formed about 450 million years ago in the teethlike hinges of much bigger and now disintegrated clam. What this means is that the clams that existed during this time period were much larger than scientists had previously thought, he said.

Looking for confirmation from a professional paleontologist, Heimbrock shared his observation with Dattilo.

Dattilo said he suspected Heimloch’s hunch was correct. The associate professor eventually led a team of researchers that went to the Cincinnati area to find more evidence to back up Heimbrock’s claim.

Dattilo found similar tiny fossils of other organisms, such as clams, trilobites and crinoids, wherein only a tiny part of their bodies were preserved.

These findings led Dattilo, and his team of researchers, to argue against the commonly held notion that the low oxygen levels of the Ordovician period caused these organisms to be “dwarfed,” according to Reeder, a senior geology student.

The discovery that there may not have been low oxygen levels could change the accepted model of how geoscientists think phosphatic deposits were formed, Reeder said.

Reeder, who co-authored the article in PALAIOS, is currently working with Dattilo on a new research project in which they are to find a better model for how this element interacts within our environment. The project, which includes several other undergraduate students, involves analyzing fossils from the Ordovician period that were found in Iowa, she said.

“That’s the good thing about IPFW. You get opportunities that you really don’’t get anywhere else, such as closer work with the professors,” Reeder said, explaining how the university’s relative lack of graduate programs gives undergraduates unique advantages.