Acclaimed paleontologist Jack Horner talks dinosaur DNA and ‘Jurassic Park’

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  • Renowned paleontologist Jack Horner signs a dinosaur after giving a lecture at the United Community Methodist Church in Bigfork for the Jurassic Park Dino-Mite Fun Day on Saturday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Solan Tallman, 6, looks at a model of a velociraptor.

  • Renowned paleontologist Jack Horner signs a dinosaur after giving a lecture at the United Community Methodist Church in Bigfork for the Jurassic Park Dino-Mite Fun Day on Saturday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Solan Tallman, 6, looks at a model of a velociraptor.

More than 100 people showed up to hear renowned dinosaur expert Jack Horner speak during the Dino-Mite Fun Day on Saturday.

Horner, a Montana native from Shelby, is well-known for his work on the production of the Jurassic Park” movies. During his talk, Horner detailed his early career as a paleontologist searching for baby dinosaur bones, which at the time had yet to be found.

“I wanted to do something no one else had done before, because if you do something no one has done before, you don’t have to do any more reading,” Horner said jokingly, adding that as a student with dyslexia, reading was never his strong suit.

When Horner traveled to Choteau in 1983 to identify bones found by local rock-shop owner Marion Brandvold, she also had some smaller bones for him to look at. They were the baby dinosaur bones that Horner had been searching for — and not just any baby dinosaur bones, but those belonging to a new duck-billed species. Brandvold told Horner she had found the bones on what later came to be known as “Egg Mountain.”

From that site, Horner excavated 15 baby dinosaurs from a nest. He later named the new species the Maiasaura.

The area was later found to be the largest concentration of dinosaurs in the world. The site is believed to be the remains of a catastrophic volcanic event, Horner said.

Horner detailed the evolution of his discoveries by telling the crowd what was known before he began work on “Jurassic Park” and what is known now.

“Up until late ’70s, people thought dinosaurs were very reptilian. We found they’re more like birds,” Horner said.

Horner said that dinosaurs build nests, just like birds, and he believes they also nested in colonies and groups.

In 1993, Horner was asked by acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg to work on the set of “Jurassic Park.”

Also present at Saturday’s event was Gerald “Jerry” Molen, a Bigfork resident and the producer of the movie.

Horner noted that many of the movie’s dinosaurs are not accurate in their depiction, but were dramatized for the film.

“We knew at the time that velociraptors had feathers, Steven [Spielberg] decided dinosaurs with feathers wouldn’t be scary enough,” Horner said.

One child in the audience Saturday asked what size velociraptors would have been. Horner responded by moving his hand to the level of his knees. The size, too, was something Spielberg felt should be altered to produce a scarier looking dinosaur, Horner said.

“We discovered that dinosaurs were very social animals, so we had them being social and conspiring … and then they go around eating people,” Horner said, to which many of the younger members of the audience gasped.

After his work on “Jurassic Park,” Horner received a grant to test the scientific theory behind the movie — to remove DNA from an insect preserved in amber. It was the first attempt at collecting dinosaur DNA, Horner said.

In attempting to duplicate what had been done in the movie, Horner discovered it simply wasn’t possible.

“You can’t make dinosaurs like they did in Jurassic Park,” Horner said.

He again tried to extract DNA by breaking the femur of a Tyrannosaurus rex, but found that DNA simply doesn’t last long enough to be found in today’s fossils.

But his efforts didn’t end with the fossils.

He explained that birds are now classified as dinosaurs, noting that the early classification system predated knowledge of evolution, removing dinosaurs from current-day animals. He now separates dinosaurs into the classes of avian — birds — and non-avian dinosaurs, which lacked the ability to fly.

“The question is whether we can make a non-avian dinosaur out of an avian dinosaur,” Horner said. “So that’s what we’ve been doing in Bozeman.”

Horner said that in using chicken eggs and switching different genes on and off, he believes that a new bird resembling a dinosaur could be created.

Such attempts have already been made, Horner noted, referencing an instance in 2006 when a gene in the common chicken was switched off, allowing the bird to grow teeth. He then referenced another study in 2015, where a group from Harvard changed the shape of a chicken’s head to reflect an earlier dinosaur shape.

Horner says he’s getting close to creating the new bird. He’s figured out how to create the hands, and is currently working on the tail.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Why would you want to do that?’” Horner said, “Learning how to turn genes on and how to turn them off has huge impacts for the medical field. It’s a fun way to do some really important science and it gets kids interested in genetics.”

In addition to working on creating a new dinosaur-bird, Horner is also working on a project with Microsoft to make holographic dinosaurs.

He says the new video games will feature colorful dinosaurs that have colors similar to birds — another discovery that was recently made showing that dinosaurs would have in fact been far more colorful than they were in the production of “Jurassic Park.”

He also is working on the sequel to “Jurassic World,” which will be in theaters in 2018.

Reporter Alyssa Gray may be reached at 758-4433 or by email at agray@dailyinterlake.com.

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