From Jurassic Park, Universal Pictures, 1993
People have told Jack Horner he’s crazy before, but he has always turned out to be right. In 1982, on the strength of seven years of undergraduate study, a stint in the Marines, and a gig as a paleontology researcher at Princeton, Horner got a job at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. He was hired as a curator but soon told his bosses that he wanted to teach paleontology. “They said it wasn’t going to happen,” Horner recalls. Four years and a MacArthur genius grant later, “they told me to do whatever I wanted to.” Horner, 65, continues to work at the museum, now filled with his discoveries. He still doesn’t have a college degree.
When he was a kid in the 1950s, dinosaurs were thought to have been mostly cold, solitary, reptilian beasts—true monsters. Horner didn’t agree with this picture. He saw in their hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old skeletons hints of sociability, of animals that lived in herds, unlike modern reptiles. Then, in the 1970s, Horner and his friend Bob Makela excavated one of the most spectacular dinosaur finds ever—a massive communal nesting site of duck-billed dinosaurs in northwest Montana complete with fossilized adults, juveniles, and eggs. There they found proof of crazy idea number one: The parents at the site cared for their young. Judging by their skeletons, the baby duckbills would have been too feeble to forage on their own.
Horner went on to find evidence suggesting that, once hatched, the animals were fast-growing (crazy idea number two) and possibly warm-blooded (that would be three), and he continues to be at the forefront of the search for ancient bits of organic matter surviving intact in fossils (number four). Add in his work as a technical consultant on the Jurassic Park movies and Horner has probably done more to shape the way we currently think about dinosaurs than any other living paleontologist.
All of which means that people are more cautious about calling him crazy these days, even when he tells them what he plans to do next: Jack Horner wants to make a dinosaur. Not from scratch—don’t be ridiculous. He says he’s going to do it by reverse-evolving a chicken. “It’s crazy,” Horner says. “But it’s also possible.”
Watch Jack Horner talk about growing a dinosaur from a chicken: