Down to Earth With: Jack Horner

by Nate Burgess
Wednesday, May 23, 2018

As one of the world’s most successful dinosaur hunters and a leader in the field of dinosaur growth and development, Jack Horner needs little introduction for paleontology enthusiasts. His first big discovery, the dinosaur Maiasaura, or “Mother Lizard,” was found with the first known dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere and the first evidence of colonial nesting. This discovery dispelled the notion that dinosaurs were bad mothers. Other notable discoveries include the first dinosaur embryos and the largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. Horner also served as technical advisor for the “Jurassic Park” films and is the partial inspiration for the main character Alan Grant.

Horner has enjoyed this successful career despite personal struggles with dyslexia. Because of his difficulty reading, Horner never graduated from college, instead working his way up from dinosaur enthusiast to lab tech to world-renowned paleontologist. By 1986, Horner’s contributions to paleontology were rewarded with the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called Genius Grant) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana, where he had spent his undergraduate days. Since 1982, Horner has worked for Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, where he is the Ameya Preserve Curator of Paleontology and a professor in the university’s honors program.

EARTH’s Nate Burgess recently talked with Horner about the ups and downs of his colorful career and his new book, “Building a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever,” which explains how scientists can manipulate chicken embryos to create birds with dinosaur characteristics.

NB: What piqued your initial interest in paleontology?

JH: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in paleontology. I was born and raised in Montana and there were fossils around. I liked searching for them when I was a little kid.

NB: So you knew that you would pursue paleontology as an undergraduate. I understand you had a rough time in college?

JH: Well, yes, I had a rough time even through grade school and high school. Dyslexia is a bad thing to have, and schools are set up for people who can memorize and read. I don’t think I could pass a class now. I don’t think I could pass one of my own classes.

NB: It’s hard to imagine building a career as successful as your own without a degree. How have you made it work for you?

JH: I went to college for almost seven years and basically flunked out the whole time. But I took the classes that I thought would be pertinent to what I wanted to do, and didn’t worry about whether I passed them or not. When I dropped out the last time, I figured that I had taken all the classes that I needed to become a paleontologist, and I had written a thesis of some sort. [The thesis] was looking at some geology in central Montana where fossil fish [have been found]. Had nothing to do with dinosaurs, but I learned a lot about geology and how to do a thesis.

When I got out of college, I got a job driving a truck and started applying to institute museums throughout the world — all the English-speaking ones — looking for jobs, anywhere from a janitor to a director.

NB: And what museum job did you find?

JH: I got three pretty quickly. One was for a lowly technician [position] at Princeton. One was a chief technician position at a Los Angeles County museum, and another was for an assistant curator in Toronto. I took the lowest paying, worst job of all, at Princeton, because it was the smallest town.

NB: Do you have advice for young people today who are interested in science, but are nervous about job prospects?

JH: I would start pursuing my interests whether I had a job or not. The real key to any success is having the passion to do it, whether you get paid for it or not. If you can do that, chances are pretty good that you will find a job.

NB: How did you get involved in teaching creative writing at Montana State?

JH: When I first came here without a bachelor’s or master’s of any kind, no one was very excited about me teaching classes, so I really couldn’t. In 1986, I got a MacArthur Fellowship, and for some reason that instantly transformed me into a smarter guy, at least as far as the university was concerned. Then they allowed me to do just about everything a person could do with a Ph.D. I could teach students. I could write grants. I could do anything.

NB: So why did you choose creative writing?

JH: Actually I didn’t. Honors students could choose their own professors, and I was one of the professors they chose. I’ve been teaching in the honors programs ever since. One of the reasons I like it [is that] for a number of years, I taught regular classes to undergraduates and I was a little discouraged by a lot of them who really didn’t have to try very hard. So I was more interested in working with students who really wanted to be there and who really wanted to learn new things and who didn’t come up to me all the time and say, “What do I have to do to get an A,” or a “passing grade?” [Laughs] I was more interested in finding students who really enjoyed learning stuff, and that was the honors program.

NB: Your latest book is “Building a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever.” Could you describe this topic?

JH: In 1993, when “Jurassic Park” came out, I had a grant to try to extract DNA from a dinosaur. And we just never really found any. We had evidence that there might be some, but we couldn’t find enough to replicate and therefore couldn’t demonstrate we had it. But we were interested in biomolecules and seeing if we could actually find enough dinosaur biomolecules to see if we could come close to, if not cloning, bringing something back of the dinosaur. Realizing, of course, that birds actually were dinosaurs, people starting to get into evolutionary development realized that it would perhaps be easier to retro-engineer a chicken back into a dinosaur. You don’t have to add anything to the chicken. You just turn on some genes.

NB: Have there been any cases of chickens suddenly getting some of these traits that were turned off?

JH: Well I suppose there are, but I don’t know of them. However, during the time of embryogenesis — during the time that the embryo is growing in the egg — an embryo takes on some primitive characteristics initially, which are then destroyed. Even a human starts developing a tail, and then a gene kicks on and gets rid of it. The same thing happens with the bird. The bird starts to develop a tail like its ancestors had, and then a gene turns on and destroys that. And it also starts out with a five-fingered hand like its ancestors, and then genes turn on and get rid of two fingers and then fuse the remaining three together to make a wing. So all we really need to do is stop those genes from doing what they do and the animals will hatch out with a long tail and a three-fingered hand instead of a wing.

NB: And how close are you to doing this?

JH: I think we will get something in the next five years.

NB: What traits will you achieve first?

JH: Hand will be first. We can already make chickens with teeth. The tail is actually pretty complicated.

NB: What impact does this research have outside of paleontology?

JH: There are a lot of genetic defects out there in the world, and once we learn how to turn genes on and how to turn them off and figure out which ones need to be turned on and off, we can start solving some of those problems.

NB: Are you concerned about this research getting into the wrong hands and affecting other animals or people?

JH: This research can’t get loose because we are only modifying animals during embryogenesis and the egg, and therefore not modifying DNA. No matter how many [of these modified chickens] mate, when they mate you are just going to end up with chickens.

NB: What place should paleontology research have in science funding during the coming years?

JH: Any studies of evolution are important — understanding genetics better and the potential of genetic diseases, just understanding how evolution works and how genes work is really important. But as far as paleontology goes, a lot of pure paleontology work has to do with determining diversity and climate change that are very applicable to our modern situation. It’s kind of like the insurance man. He needs a history to determine how much you should pay. In order for us to evaluate climatic change or change in diversity on our planet, we need a historical reference. And paleontology offers that.

NB: How does education fit into the equation?

JH: Our school system is set up to be as simple as possible. You give people information and they regurgitate it back to you and you test them on it. What we’ve taken away from students now is the ability to figure out how to think. That requires more people to work harder to teach people how to think. Other countries are training their kids how to think. And if America isn’t, it is going to be left in the dust. We have the capability of really becoming an “intellectual third-world” country.

I think it really comes down to a failure at my end — a failure at universities — to train teachers to be good teachers. Nobody puts much effort into teaching teachers to be good teachers. And that has to change.

NB: My final question: What’s been your favorite adventure as a paleontologist?

JH: You know, I’ve worked all over the world. Different places have different things. I mostly travel around looking for dinosaur egg sites and I’ve seen most of them. I would say my most fun adventure was in Argentina. One of my donors shipped his helicopter down there and we went dinosaur hunting by helicopter. That was a lot of fun.

NB: That sounds straight out of “Jurassic Park.”

JH: Yep, that’s right.

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