Corrections or additions?

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

the laboratory.

"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

been since.

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."

"Cool New Stuff About Long Dead Dinosaurs: An Evening

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.

"Hatching the Past: Dinosaur Eggs and Babies" opens on

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.

25th Annual Super Science Family Festival, State Museum,

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.

For more information on "Cool New Stuff About Long Dead

Dinosaurs," directions, and parking details, visit

Previous Story Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments