Paleontologist encourages innovation and education at the Museum of the Rockies

Since 1982, Jack Horner has served as the curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, and is also the regents professor of Paleontology for the Montana University System. One of the most well-known experts in his field, the paleontologist was recognized by Newton Graphic Science Magazine, a Japanese publication, as one of the world’s top 24 scientists.

Horner was born and raised in Shelby, Mont. and had an interest in paleontology from a young age. He spent several years attending University of Montana while studying geology and zoology before dropping out.

“It turned out okay. I flunked out of U of M and now I’m a regents professor at MSU,” Horner said.

Involved in academics since 1975, Horner’s first job was at Princeton where he worked as a technician in a museum.

“Three years after I got there, I found the baby dinosaurs at Egg Mountain and published my first paper in nature. So Princeton promoted me from technician to research scientist and then I worked as a research scientist for a couple of years and then the Museum of the Rockies wanted a curator for the museum, so I applied for it and got it.”

Horner’s accomplishments include the discovery of the first dinosaur embryos, as well as discovering the first dinosaurs eggs in the western hemisphere. He has contributed greatly to the study of dinosaur growth and was a proponent of theories that stated that dinosaurs were warm blooded and feathered. He has published and written numerous papers and articles as well as several books, and served as a technical advisor for the popular “Jurassic Park” films.

While continuing to study dinosaur growth, Horner is also examining the potential of discovering and manipulating latent genes that birds may still have since they evolved from dinosaurs.

“The theoretical question is whether we could do it: could you bring back a dinosaur? You can’t really bring back an extinct dinosaur, but we could bring back some of the characteristics of a dinosaur,” Horner said “It’s about trying to figure out the transition between dinosaurs and birds. Birds really are dinosaurs, but they have evolved so many new characteristics they are very different from one another. Because birds are closely related to dinosaurs, they still carry a lot of dinosaur DNA. We can’t find DNA in extinct dinosaurs so if we want to bring back a dinosaur, the best way to do it is to just use a bird.”

Horner continued, “There are a couple of things involved in this. One is to see if we can do it, and it is also a great way to study the evolution of birds from dinosaurs and to learn about the developmental processes involved in modifying an animal.”

Horner’s interest into genetic modification extends into other animals as well. He suggested that most domestic animals already exist as genetically modified organisms, so it would be reasonable to use genetic knowledge to make more.

Horner said that he has never been an orthodox thinker – something he attributes to his dyslexia – which has allowed him to think outside the box his entire life. He sees his ideas, whether successful or not, as ways to encourage others, including students, to think outside the box as well.

“I like to come up with different ways of getting people to think differently. School teaches you to think the same way: you go into class and you learn what everyone else has learned and then you are set on a path that basically everyone else has been on. You can lengthen than path, but why not make some new paths?” Horner asked, “Everything we need to know is on our phone. Every bit of information in the world is accessible by phone … what we should be doing is teaching people how to use information, and how to challenge it, because a whole bunch of it is wrong.”

Horner concluded by saying that of all his life’s work and accomplishments, he is most proud of his students and the work they do.

“Everything on display [at the museum], there is science behind it … all of it was done here, by either our students or our staff and it is the only university museum in the world where everything was done at the place where it is shown,” Horner said, “that’s what I’m proud of. I’m proud of our students doing world class research that you can go to other museums and see there as well as here.”