Interview: Jack Horner

Angie Ripple  |   Friday May. 1st, 2015

AR: I grew up in St. Ignatius, Montana and I was wondering, what it was like growing up in Shelby?

JH: That’s a good question. The wind blew hard. It was 60 miles to Glacier, so we went over there a lot.

AR: Are there a lot of dinosaurs in Glacier?

JH: No, but there are in between, around Cut Bank and Browning, a lot in that area. I worked a lot in that area after I left Shelby, and then East of Shelby, Chester, along the hi-line, Rudyard, north of Rudyard up on the Milk River, where (it) flows into (the) states and flows down to Havre, that whole area is pretty good (full of dinosaur fossils).

AR: Do rivers make it easier to find dinosaur bones?

JH: To find a dinosaur bone you really have to find places where the right age rock is exposed at the surface of the ground, and then where a river has cut through it, because otherwise there’s a wheat field on it or trees or something. So when rivers have cut through them, it exposes the rock and the kinds of rocks that dinosaurs are generally found in are mudstones, and mudstones weather very quickly, and so they form badlands. And so, erosion actually happens faster than plants can grow. We just go along the rivers, the Milk River, and its almost all badlands almost the entire way except when it gets down in the flat land, basically Saco east. But that still gives us a lot of territory.

AR: You were really young the first time you found a dinosaur bone. What was that like?

JH: I was eight years old, when I found my first dinosaur bone -- it’s right there -- [points to a shelf to the right of his workspace in the basement of the Museum of the Rockies] I still have it.

AR: The rock looking thing? What is it?

JH: Yep, oh I don’t know, it’s too small to really identify.

AR: What did you think it was when you found it?

JH: I knew it was a dinosaur bone, my father had taken me out to an area where he had remembered seeing some big bones sticking out of the ground. He was sort of a geologist, so he sort of knew enough to know that when I was interested in dinosaurs he knew enough to at least get me to where I could find something. That was near Dupuyer where we found that. Then when I was thirteen I found my first dinosaur skeleton near Cut Bank but, it was in really hard rock and I was only able to get a chunk of it. Which was good because (of) my mother; I filled up my basement and she didn’t really appreciate that, it was a good thing I didn’t have much more of that dinosaur.

AR: Do you know what that was?

JH: It was a Duck-Billed dinosaur. The first dinosaur I actually dug up was after I was in college and it was a Duck-Billed dinosaur also and it was north of Rudyard.

AR: What did you want to be when you grew up?

JH: Well I always wanted to be a paleontologist, so I’m still hoping to be one.

AR: So that was the plan and that’s what you did, almost all of it in Montana?

JH: Well, yes, I didn’t do very well in school, I had dyslexia so I basically flunked out of high school, but they passed me anyway. Then I went to the University of Montana for a whole bunch of years and flunked out. They had a really good paleontology program there and so I took every class that was offered.

AR: Do they still do that?

JH: No, they had a paleontologist who studied fossil mammals, and then when he retired it was very close to the time that I came here [Bozeman] and so I basically moved that program here.

AR: When was that, that you moved to Bozeman?

JH: I came in 1982. I went to Princeton first, after I got tired of flunking out of college I got a job at Princeton as a technician and I was there seven years and the director of this museum came out and visited me while I was out in the field and he said “leave some stuff in Montana for us to look at” and I said “nah, but if you hire me I’ll collect for ya, and I can come home” ‘cause I didn’t like New Jersey.

AR: One of the questions I have from a Bozeman Magazine reader is: Will you make a dinosaur from dino DNA and will you keep it at the Museum of the Rockies? And I wanted to talk about the Chickensaurus.

JH: The dino chicken project is a project that is going on on campus in developmental biology. The whole idea is to look at how dinosaurs gave rise to birds and looking at that whole evolutionary process. You know I figure if we can discover how it happened we can reverse it, but, first we have to discover how it worked. All of our project, right now, is aimed at just understanding how dinosaurs lost their tails to become birds, how their arms transformed into wings, and how they lost their teeth. You know a whole lot of developmental things have to happen between a dinosaur and a bird. And yet, when we look at a bird they have virtually all of the right morphologies of a dinosaur except they have a short tail and they have wings, and so the pathway back may actually be pretty simple. The experiments we do are all with embryos in eggs and they are all done at a very tiny (stage), really really young, you can’t even tell it’s an animal let alone that it’s going to turn into a bird. We don’t take them any further than that. And we won’t until we know [that something will happen?] that something will happen, right.

AR: How big is the department of developmental biology at MSU?

JH: Well, it’s not a department it’s a program within cell and neurobiology and that’s a relatively big program. There are, I think, maybe half a dozen developmental biologists in that program, and of all of them there is one, Christa Murzdorf, who works with us, and then I have a post-doc over there, Dana Rashid who actually spearheads the project, and we’ve had a couple other post-docs that sort of come and go you know post-docs don’t come for long because they’re looking for jobs. Dana has stayed with it for a while and she has some undergrads that help out. The cool thing about the Dino Chicken project is, you know it is trying to find out how birds evolved from dinosaurs with the whole idea that we might be able to reverse the process. But, it also is about (kids), by calling it the Dino Chicken project and talking about making a dinosaur it gets kids interested in genetics, and its hard to get kids interested in genetics. In fact it’s hard to get anyone interested in genetics because its really boring, but, by having a project kids are interested in you really can get them fired up about it and they are interested and they’re following the progress of it. It’s important to help people understand that it is basically genetic engineering, and you know people are so afraid of it, and they’re afraid of it because they don’t know what it is. This is all about trying to teach people what a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) is, and the fact that if they have a cat or a dog that is a GMO, it’s been modified. Everything they eat, all their pets, it’s all genetically modified.

AR: Did you have any teachers that were a particularly strong influence; that encouraged you to do what you liked to do?

JH: No actually I really didn’t. Unfortunately people back in the day when I was growing up thought that a person that (had) bad grades like I did had to be either not very smart or lazy so they didn’t put much effort into me. I did have a science teacher who must have been baffled by the whole thing because I won all the science fairs, but I could win a science fair because I had a whole year to make a project.

[His projects included a rocket that went 20,000 feet in the air, a Van de Graaff generator, a Tesla coil, by adding an x-ray tube to the Tesla coil and Van de Graaff generator he was able to x-ray crystals, and body parts, his final science fair project was named Dinosaurs of Montana and Alberta.]

AR: How can we encourage kids with learning disabilities to follow their dreams?

JH: Well, the most important thing is that the parent just let them do what they have a passion to do and not worry about what job they’re going to have because when a person does something with passion they are going to do well no matter what it is. I mean it just doesn’t matter what it is. Parents just have to realize they just have to let the kid do it and not get in the way.

AR: What do you feel that the next big discovery in Dino science will be or, what is an outstanding theory that has yet to be answered?

JH: Paleontology is unpredictable, and it has mostly to do with discoveries; there is no way to predict what a discovery will be. The most important thing you can do is just have a really open mind so that the chances are you will actually know when you’ve made a good discovery. And quite frankly, people who are looking for particular answers probably overlook the best questions. I think just keeping a really open mind and checking your preconceived ideas as often as possible is the best thing you can do. Everybody has preconceived ideas, You think you already know a lot of stuff and when you sit down and think about it you realize you don’t really know anything, you don’t really know the answer and you have sort of sift through all that stuff and find out what it really is that you know based on evidence and what you don’t know that is based on an opinion. I have no idea what the next great discovery will be, but it will be made by someone that likely has fewer preconceived ideas than the next person.

AR: Are there any digs going on currently?

JH: Not currently, it is winter currently, but in the summer, yes we have lots of digs going on.

AR: How does one go about being involved in something like that?

JH: First off, right now the Museum of the Rockies doesn’t have much going on. Even when we do though, the first people we take are students, and then often times we will take the general public as long as they fulfill certain criteria, they have to be in good shape, they have to be people that aren’t going to stand around with their hands in their pockets, people that have to pitch right in and help get things done. They have to be people who are just as willing to wash dishes as go find fossils.

AR: Are there opportunities for kids to be involved?

JH: No, we can’t take anyone under 18.

AR: How long did it take to get the new T rex [Montana’s T rex] together?

JH: Well it was collected back in the 90’s, and prepared back in the 90’s. We’ve had it in collection for a long time and when we gave the other one to the Smithsonian for their dinosaur hall, and the reason we did that is because we have a cast of it outside, you know and there’s no reason to put the same one inside that we have cast outside. So, we’ve got the one outside, Big Mike, so we put up a different T rex inside, put the real skeleton up.

AR: How can you differentiate the skeletons?

JH: Well they are different individuals, they are about the same size, we actually have the skulls. We have a cast of the skull of the Wankel T rex that went to Smithsonian in an exhibit with the real skull of Montana’s T rex, and then some skulls of some other T rexes. We have the biggest T rex collection in the world here, so we might as well put a bunch of them on display. We’ve mounted the whole skeleton [of Montana’s T rex] so if you compare the skeleton of the one that’s outside you’ll see that there are actually more parts of the one that is inside, there are a bunch of belly ribs, bones that are called gastralia, a big boney basket that helped protect the organs, and it’s put on the skeleton, and very few other museums, I don’t know if anyone actually has mounted their skeleton that way before, with the whole skeleton mounted. And then of course you have to put it up on a base if you are putting it in a museum and its two feet up so it really looks huge.

AR: Cool. Everyone knows the Jurassic Park story, getting DNA from a mosquito to create a dinosaur..

: Well we can’t do it. It’s not possible to get DNA from a dinosaur yet. It makes a good story.

AR: And they wanted you to make it real?

JH: They made some stuff real, its a fictional movie and most of it’s not true. I worked on all of the dinosaurs in all of the different movies. I was the technical advisor.

: What new dinosaurs can we expect to see in the new Jurassic World movie?

JH: In Jurassic Park 1, 2 & 3 the premise of the movies were that we were bringing them back from the past. In the new movie the premise is: the park has been open for ten years, they got the park up and running and people are kind of bored seeing the same dinosaurs so we decided to genetically engineer some new ones so they wouldn’t be boring anymore. As you can imagine, when you genetically engineer a new dinosaur to be scary it’s going to get out and raise havoc and that’s what happens. So our new genetically modified dinosaurs, some of them are really cool looking, and one of them is really scary.

AR: Well that is scary.

JH: It is scary because everyone wants one that is bigger than the last one, so its scary and big and has some interesting attributes. I got to invent a dinosaur, a really scary one. I start out the process and making the scariest one I want and then Steven kind of messes with it and makes it his way.

AR: Do you think that most dinosaurs were scary?

JH: No, I don’t. I think that dinosaurs were more like birds than like mammals and how many scary birds are there?

AR: What else would you like to share with our readers?

JH: Well, come see Montana’s T rex, and go see the movie [Jurassic World]. We will be premiering the movie [in Bozeman] two days before anyone else will get to see it [June 10]. It’s going to be at the Regal Cinema and Universal will come with their technical team and they will get the theatre perfect. The movie isn’t finished yet but I’ve seen segments of it and it’s really good. And we will have special guests here [for the screening] I can’t tell you who they are, but it will be very worthwhile.

A huge [T rex] thank you to Jack Horner for taking time to speak with Bozeman magazine! The Jurassic World screening will take place on June 10 at Regal Cinema at Bozeman’s Gallatin Valley Mall. The screening is a fundraiser for the Museum of the Rockies, tickets are $35 and will be available to the public on May 1st through

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