Amateur Spotlight: William P. Heimbrock

Bill Heimbrock at Geier Collections and Research Center
Bill Heimbrock at Geier Collections and Research Center

Editor’s note: This month, we highlight William Heimbrock, a board member of the Dry Dredgers organization based in Cincinnati.

WH: First of all, I’d like to say I’m very grateful and honored to be selected for this Amateur Spotlight. There are so many more interesting, noteworthy amateurs in the Dry Dredgers. I also want to thank Dr. Ben Dattilo, among others, for championing amateur paleontology in our area and for allowing me to be a co-author in our recent paper in Palaios.

How did you first discover your passion for fossil collecting?

I didn’t take a sincere interest in studying paleontology until my 30’s, despite the fact that I’ve lived my whole life in the Cincinnati area. Professionally, I’m a mainframe computer systems analyst. Science and technology have always my passion and hobby.

In the late 1980’s I was taking 3-D hyper-stereo photographs of the hills of Cincinnati using two 35mm cameras in tandem. This lets you see landscapes in true 3D. While viewing my stereo slides, I noticed that some hills were gently sloping while others were steep, as if an ancient river had carved the hills. I had to find out why. I became interested in glaciology and geology.

So my quest took me to a nearby creek bed to look for clues. I had hoped to find evidence of ancient glaciers and Native American artifacts. Instead, I found marine invertebrate fossils. Fascinating! I also found a large bone and a large tooth. I took my suspected Pleistocene bison femur and tooth to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History where vertebrate curator Dr. Greg McDonald opened a big drawer filled with Pleistocene bison femurs and pulled one out to compare to my cow bone. I learned how to tell the difference! Greg recommended I join the Dry Dredgers. That was great advice.

When did you begin working with the Cincinnati Dry Dredgers?  How many projects have you done in collaboration with the Dry Dredgers and affiliated professional paleontologists, such as Dr. Benjamin Dattilo and Dr. Rebecca Freeman?

I joined the Dry Dredgers in 1991. As a board member, I have a number of committee positions that have led me into long term projects with the group. Most are tied to outreach efforts. I’ve been the designer and webmaster of since 1998, taking it over from Greg Hand. I now do the website for our annual Geofair.

I have been chair of the Dry Dredgers fossil kit committee since 1992. These kits of 12 “genuine fossils from the hills of Cincinnati” are sold in museum and park gift shops around the area. We also sell and donate kits and loose fossils to local schools and universities. I encourage our membership to donate their extra fossils to this outreach effort. All fossils are screened for scientifically important specimens and determination is made if they should go to museum collections, a researcher with specific needs or as teaching kits. Supply does not always keep up with demand.

Fossil Kits produced by the Dry Dredgers
Fossil Kits produced by the Dry Dredgers

Bill taking notes at a Dry Dredgers meeting
Bill taking notes at a Dry Dredgers meeting

I have been involved in paleo research projects with the Dry Dredgers since 1991. Award winning amateur paleontologist Steve Felton has been my greatest mentor the entire time. I remember Steve engaging us in those early meetings to look for worm tubes on our fossils for one of his collaborative projects. I began examining every slab and fossil with a hand lens, looking for the positions of worm tubes and other epizoans to give clues to feeding and life positions.

Our Dry Dredgers meetings have always been attended by plenty of professional geologists and paleontologists, all of whom were eager to educate us and engage us in their research. When I found a pavement of brachiopods with a population of edrioasteroids in the year 2000, Drs. Dave Meyer, Carlton Brett, Colin Sumrall and Paula Work along with a crew of amateurs rallied to the dig site to help excavate the pavement and record every detail within the grid. This provided data for their respective projects and was a great education for me. Read more about the field work here.

Our professionals are very aware that this tradition of amateur paleontology in Cincinnati goes back to the 1800’s and the current members of the Dry Dredgers are their heirs. A brief history of the Dry Dredgers is available here.

I was soon helping graduate students, such as Dr. Brenda Hunda, in the field to complete their theses. Many of the Dry Dredgers shared their trilobite locations and knowledge with Brenda. We are happy to say Brenda is now the invertebrate curator at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science.

I have had three collaborations that have resulted in my being a co-author of a published paper.

The first publication was with Dr. Greg Schumacher, of the Ohio Geologic Survey. He came out to my favorite trilobite site with Dr. Bob Frey and Dry Dredgers Steve Felton and Debby Scheid.

Greg Schumacher and Bill Heimbrock
Greg Schumacher and Bill Heimbrock

I donated about 350 Flexicalymene sp. trilobites to aid his search for epizoans. Other Dry Dredgers including Bruce Gibson and Dan Cooper also donated specimens. Greg Schumacher and Marcus Key were very generous to include us all as co-authors and gave us a chance to edit drafts of the paper. This made me feel included as a true co-author.

The second publication was with Dr. Michael Vendrasco of California State University, Fullerton. Michael saw the website I started in 2001 to promote collaborations between amateurs and professionals. He was gathering tiny phosphatic molds of mollusks from the Late Ordovician to look for evidence of early nacre (mother-of-pearl) and wanted some samples from the Cincinnati area. After Michael’s SEM’s of the first sample I mailed him showed possible nacre impressions on snail and clam surfaces, I began an extensive sampling of phosphatic layers in the Cincinnatian Series. Over several years I mailed him samples of clay and rock containing phosphatic steinkerns we call “Cyclora Hash” from 24 sites local sites covering several formations. The results have been astounding. Clear evidence of nacre has been found on snails and clams in most locations and formations. Some of this evidence has been now been published and some is yet-unpublished. Our work is still ongoing. I was honored to be a participating co-author.

Please tell us about your contributions to the project that resulted in the Palaois paper “Giants among micromorphs: were Cincinnatian (Ordovician, Katian) small shell phosphatic fauna dwarfed?”.  How did this research project develop over the years?  Do you have any other collaborative projects in the pipeline?

This is my third co-authorship. This project for me actually began 20 years ago. I have Dr. Ben Dattilo to thank for helping to bring everything together for me and including me in his and Rebecca Freeman’s research. I had found clear evidence that hinge dentitions of ordinary sized clams were selectively preserved in phosphatic “Cyclora” layers of the Cincinnatian Series. These layers were previously interpreted as micromorph assemblages of dwarfed or stunted forms.

In the mid-1990s, my involvement began when I had found a phosphatic layer in the Arnheim Formation (late Ordovician) of Florence KY that was so totally loaded with tiny phosphatic snail and clam molds, I scooped up some clay and took it home to examine under a microscope. Most of these phosphatic fossils I could easily identify, such as the snails and clams collectively referred to as “Cyclora”. But one fossil stumped me as well as other Dry Dredgers. Yet I was finding thousands of this mystery fossil in the phosphatic layers of Kentucky. I thought surely someone would know what this was. I spent the next several years asking amateurs and professionals from around the world for identifications or rule-outs. I received back only rule-outs and ideas of dozens of things this mystery fossil could be. I would have to figure it out for myself by comparing it to known fossil fauna. I learned a great deal about paleontology in those years. Colin Sumrall, Jack Kallmeyer and Roger Cuffey all helped me a great deal, but so did many others.

Several Dry Dredgers and professionals suggested reading the only in depth work on the phosphatic “Cyclora” layers of the Cincinnatian. I went to the geology library at Miami University in Oxford to read Anthony J. Martin’s master’s thesis from 1986 on “A Paleoenvironmental Interpretation of the ‘Arnheim’ Micromorph Fossil Assemblage from the Cincinnatian Series (Upper Ordovician), Southeastern Indiana and Southwestern Ohio. ” Dr. Martin’s thesis helped give me new perspective on these phosphatic layers. He is one of the co-authors on our current paper.

Lyrodesma Hinge Dentitions
Lyrodesma Hinge Dentitions

Finally, after an extensive process of elimination, my mystery fossil found a good match. It was the phosphatic mold of the surfaces of bivalve hinge teeth, probably of Lyrodesma sp. The actual dentitions were made of aragonite and were completely destroyed over time. The sturdier phosphate molds survived. For more information in this “mystery fossil,” see my website

This is when Dr. Ben Dattilo, with whom I’ve worked previously on brachiopod fossil sites, came to me for samples of my phosphatic fossils and my thoughts on how these layers may have formed. It was clear to both of us that my mystery fossils were from normal sized clams, and not part of a dwarfed community. Ben found lots of other examples of where the phosphates only filled in tiny cavities in full-sized shells. This became the topic for our paper that made the cover feature of the March 2016 issue of Palaios.

I plan to continue examining the phosphatic layers of the Cincinnatian Series to discover new interpretations and methods previously unavailable to paleontology.

You can follow my paleontological research on

Do you have any recommendations or tips for other fossils clubs/societies who are trying to improve their level of collaboration with professionals?

Beginners Class February 2016
Beginners Class February 2016

I think the key to building collaborative efforts is the education of members and educational outreach. Teach members how to take good site notes and how to identify the local formations. Every fossil club should have beginner’s classes in addition to the feature guest lecturer so that knowledge is accessible to all ages. Perhaps invite paleontologists to speak at your meetings who have a sincere interest in fostering the amateur community.

Always have a show-and-tell time at meetings where collectors bring in the fossils they have found. Make sure local professionals have received your newsletter so they can attend the meetings and see the fossils members have brought in. For us, this has often been the first step in a collaboration.

Engage both members and the local paleontologists by having an annual event like a fossil festival. Educational outreach is a common goal for both parties and this is where we can shine. Make every effort to advance the knowledge of fossils and the professionals will be there with you.

I have a final word. Do you want to be a co-author of a professional paper? Rather than simply depositing your interesting fossils in a museum collection silently, seek out a professional actively doing work on it. Search papers with or post your request for researchers on Go the extra yard and gather more site notes and analyze implications of your fossil find. You may get more than a mention in the acknowledgements section of the final paper. Being named a co-author often depends on your level of effort. You could even be named as the first author on that paper. You can be a publishing amateur paleontologist!

To learn more:

Key, M.M., Jr., G.A. Schumacher, L.E. Babcock, R.C. Frey, W.P. Heimbrock, S.H. Felton, D.L. Cooper, W.B. Gibson, D.G. Scheid, and S.A. Schumacher. 2010. Paleoecology of commensal epizoans fouling Flexicalymene (Trilobita) from the Upper Ordovician, Cincinnati Arch region, USA. Journal of Paleontology 84(6): 1121-1134.

Vendrasco, M.J., A. Checa, W.P. Heimbrock, and S.D.J. Baumann. 2013. Nacre in molluscs from the Ordovician of the Midwestern United States. Geosciences 3(1): 1-29.

Dattilo, B.F., Freeman, R. L., Peters, W. S., Heimbrock, W. P., Deline, B., Martin, A. J., Kallmeyer, J. W., Reeder, J., & Argast, A. 2016. Giants among micromorphs: Were Cincinnatian (Ordovician, Katian) small shelly phosphatic faunas dwarfed? Palaios 31(3): 55-70. v. 31, doi:10.2110/palo.2015.040