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This article was prepared by Euna Kwon Brossman for the May 18,
2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Man Behind the Dinosaur Craze
The Jurassic Park movies did for dinosaurs what "Jaws" did for sharks.
The premise of Jurassic Park is that science goes horribly amok when
living dinosaurs are created from prehistoric DNA. In the first
Jurassic Park movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, a wealthy
entrepreneur develops a secret theme park featuring the terrifying
beasts, then invites top scientists to experience the attraction
before opening it to the public. Of course, this is Hollywood and it
wouldn’t be a thriller if the security system didn’t break down, and
the creatures escaped, wreaking terror on their human prey.
Montana-based paleontologist Jack Horner was tapped as the technical
advisor to Spielberg for the first movie, "Jurassic Park," and then
for its sequel, "The Lost World." He then advised director Joe
Johnston on "Jurassic Park III." He says that a script for a Jurassic
Park IV is finished but the project is on hold, at least for now. He
also says that it is widely believed that the character of Alan Grant,
a top paleontologist played by the suavely handsome Sam Neal was
actually based on him. "He’s a paleontologist from Montana who studies
dinosaur behavior, and if you watch ‘Jurassic Park III’ there is a
scene where it shows an excavation happening at Fort Peck Lake in
"If you keep watching the scene, the camera zooms in on a truck that
Grant is getting out of, and on the side, it says Museum of the
Rockies, Montana State University." That is where Horner is currently
curator of paleontology and professor of paleontology. Horner says
that one of the perks of serving as an advisor is that he spent quite
a bit of time in Hollywood, not only with Spielberg, but with Neal and
his family so that the actor could get a sense of his work.
The public can get a sense of Horner’s work when the paleontologist
speaks on "Cool New Stuff About Long Dead Dinosaurs" at the New Jersey
State Museum’s newly renovated Auditorium at 205 West State Street in
Trenton, on Friday, May 20, at 7 p.m. The Friends of the Museum will
host a special fund-raising reception following the lecture at 8 p.m.
This event is appropriate for children 10 and older. Guests will have
a chance to meet with the noted paleontologist in person and to
preview the new exhibition, "Hatching the Past: Dinosaur Eggs and
Babies," opening the next day in conjunction with the museum’s annual
family science fair. The remarkable hands-on exhibition offers an
astounding array of authentic dinosaur eggs and nests collected from
all over the globe that will be on view through September 10.
Horner discovered the first dinosaur eggs in the Western hemisphere,
the first evidence of dinosaur nesting, the first evidence of parental
care among dinosaurs, and the first dinosaur embryos. His research
covers dinosaur behavior, physiology, and evolution. He has written
numerous professional papers, popular articles, and technical books.
His most recent discovery was a tyrannosaurus discovered in eastern
Montana – what is being billed as the oldest T. Rex on record. What is
especially exciting, according to an article in the March 25 issue of
the journal Science, is that the find included soft tissues preserved
in both hind thigh bones of the dinosaur.
‘One of my staff found it in rocks that are 68 million years old,"
says Horner. "T-Rexes are generally 65 to 68 million years old. It’s
smaller than other T-Rexes that are known. This one was young when it
died, about 14 years old. They generally lived to be anywhere between
25 and 30." Horner says that one of the challenges of studying such
finds is that once exposed to the air, the bones begin to deteriorate
and a lot of information can be lost in the transport to the museum or
"When the specimen is in the ground and exposed to the air, we have to
get glue on it to preserve it, but then with the glue it’s hard to do
a chemical analysis," Horner says. "Decomposition is an issue so it’s
a catch-22. The ideal is to find a specimen we don’t put glue on,
collect as quickly as possible, and then study quickly while it’s in
the ground. If you want to do biochemistry on a specimen then it has
to be something you’re not going to put glue on even it means it’s
going to be destroyed. With this find we’ve glued parts and left other
parts unglued. We have lots of data, and we continue to study it."
Horner is passionate about dinosaurs and he is eager to share that
passion. He understands why kids in particular are so fascinated when
it comes to the prehistoric beasts. "It often gives kids their first
opportunity to know more than their parents about something. They can
study dinosaurs on their own and then rattle off statistics. They keep
their interest even as adults because dinosaurs are intriguing by
nature. They’re big, they’re different, and they’re gone."
Horner says his own preoccupation with dinosaurs began when he was
eight years old, the year he found his first dinosaur bone near his
home in Shelby, Montana, where he was born. The town is about 50 miles
from Glacier National Park in an area of eastern Montana that is known
as a cradle of dinosaur activity. "My father remembered riding a horse
across the prairie when he was younger and he remembered seeing some
big bones sticking out of the ground near his family home. He took me
back there, and I found a fossilized dinosaur bone about the size of a
fist. I figured out it was part of the arm bone of a duckbill
Horner kept that first find and it sits on his desk to this day. "I
was excited when I found it, and even though I’ve found thousands and
thousands of bones since then, I still get excited every time I find
one. When I find a whole dinosaur I get very excited."
Horner grew up as the oldest of three children. His father owned a
sand and gravel plant and his mother was a housewife who ended up
driving her son with the burgeoning interest in dinosaurs all over to
places where fossils were known, including southern Alberta, Canada.
"There was a dinosaur skeleton at a zoo in Calgary I liked a lot,"
Horner says, adding that he didn’t read very much because he was
dyslexic, but he went to the library, looked at pictures, and took in
a lot of information visually. He went to Shelby High School. "I
learned at my speed. I had very bad grades in school because I
couldn’t do things as fast as the teachers wanted me to. But I didn’t
care about the bad grades as long as I learned something. I was
learning in a different way. It’s hands-on learning and you’re really
learning it with your whole body."
He went on to the University of Montana where he flunked out seven
times in seven years. "But I kept going back because I was persistent,
and I was still taking classes and learning something. I still believe
that a college education is worth a lot more than a college degree."
Though he never earned a diploma, by 1973 he had exhausted all the
courses he wanted to take, especially in science and paleontology, so
he left and went back home, where he and his brother ran his father’s
gravel plant. He was 28 years old. But he found that he wasn’t
satisfied with his life. "I wrote letters to every English-speaking
museum in the world I could find an address for and asked if there
were any jobs open. I was willing to be anything from a janitor to a
director." He says three museums responded, the Los Angeles County
Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and Princeton University.
"The Princeton job was as a research assistant, actually mostly a
lowly technician, but it was in the smallest town and hey, I was from
Montana," Horner says. He lived in an apartment complex off North
Harrison Street called Princeton Community Village. "The whole complex
was surrounded by the woods, and I loved it. It was like being out in
the country." Horner worked at Guyot Hall at the Museum of Natural
History where geology and biology are housed. He was involved in a lot
of research, published several papers, and over his seven years there,
from 1975 to 1982, became a paleontologist. He says he found a mentor
in Don Baird, the museum’s director and curator, who offered him
support and guidance over those formative years. Baird, since retired,
now lives in Pittsburgh.
Though he enjoyed being at the university, Horner says the culture
shock of the east coast was difficult, and he found himself longing
for home. "I just couldn’t get used to how impatient people were. In
Montana we stop and help people out. I had to go to Montana to go
dinosaur hunting anyway so I figured I might as well just live there."
Serendipity called. In 1982 Montana State University in Bozeman
decided to have a paleontology program, and that’s where Horner has
Four years later, in 1986, still without a formal college degree, his
work was recognized with an honorary doctorate of science from the
University of Montana. Horner chuckles with the memory. "The guy that
gave it to me was the guy who kicked me out seven times. They didn’t
know anything about dyslexia back in those days. I received that
degree the same year I turned 40. You can’t have a mid-life crisis
when you get something like that."
The honorary doctorate was a wonderful birthday gift but it was
followed by one that was even bigger and better that very same year, a
MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the genius grant. In 1986 the
monetary reward was $1,000 for every year of the recipient’s age for a
five-year period. "So that first year, I received $40,000, $41,000 my
second year, and so on. By the time I was 45, I had received over
$200,000." Horner used that money to start his own laboratory at
Montana State University to study cellular and molecular paleontology.
He has a staff of about 10 and four graduate students. One of his
graduate students was Mary Schweitzer, who made that landmark T-Rex
soft tissue discovery this year.
"I had published a lot, and the National Science Foundation had
allowed me to write my own grant without a college degree. But without
one it’s hard to get grants, and it’s hard to teach. I was teaching
classes at a university without a college degree, and people start
wondering after awhile. Once I had a MacArthur, that’s peer review,
the best kind. It helps a lot. It gave me credibility."
Horner has been married, and he’s also been divorced – three times.
"It’s a tough life on families," he explains. "As a paleontologist,
you’re gone a lot; you’re traveling around the world." He does have a
girlfriend from Princeton, someone he met when he was working in town.
"I was giving a lecture in Portland last year and ran into her. She
came out into the field just about the time when my third wife was
packing up. She’s a psychologist." He agrees that her chosen field may
help her understand his fascinations and idiosyncrasies. While she is
currently finishing up her doctorate in Florida, he expects her to
move out to Montana over the summer.
Horner also has a 30-year-old son, a carpenter, who lives in Roebling
and has four children of his own, ranging from toddler to age 10. He
expects his grandchildren will join him at the New Jersey State Museum
in full force for the big dinosaur event, and he says he’s excited to
see them and to pass on his love of dinosaurs as well. "I want
everyone to see science up close, to see the cool stuff we can do and
the questions we can ask these days. We have all sorts of equipment,
CAT scanners, scanning electron microscopes that let us figure out
what dinosaurs were like as living creatures. The idea is to show that
science is really fun. You’re like a detective. You get to figure out
things that nobody has figured out before. I love it. I would do this
stuff for a hobby even if somebody wasn’t paying."
with Jack Horner, Friday, May 20, 7 p.m., New Jersey State Museum
Auditorium. Private reception follows at 8 p.m. Lecture only, $25;
student $15; tickets for supporters also available for $75 to $500.
Saturday, May 21, at the New Jersey State Museum’s Galleries, 225 West
State Street in Trenton. Through September 10. The Galleries are open
Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.,
and are closed Sundays and state holidays. Admission is free.
Saturday, May 21, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, May 22, 10 a.m. to 5
p.m., rain or shine. General admission is free, with low-cost or free
programs. Over 35 science exhibitors will present.
Dinosaurs," directions, and parking details, visit
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