Jack Horner might be the guy who brings back the dinosaur. With help from a chicken, no less.
If he has his way — meaning science works and no one stops him — such a creation could occur in less than five years.
On Thursday, the flannel-shirt- and work-boot-wearing regular-guy dinosaur hunter will be at the University of Kentucky's Singletary Center to talk about his discoveries, the ongoing work of his research team and how, for goodness' sake, one makes a dinochicken. He might even explain why. In exchange, the audience will get to marvel at the gee-whizardry of the creation process while they get a close look at this paleontological legend who can hardly wait for the day when he can walk back on that stage with his Chickenosaurus, raptorlike claws visible to all, in tow.
Of course, people could stop him and his colleagues, he allows, because this is messing with Mother Nature, but they are not exactly doing their work in secret. Scientific papers have been peer-reviewed; their results
have been duplicated. Horner also has written a book, How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have To Be Forever (Penguin, $16) so that even a sixth-grader can understand it.
Others are not far behind. A team of Japanese, Russian and American researchers let the world know recently that they hope to produce a woolly mammoth from 12,000-year-old DNA and a live elephant's eggs. Their time table is just a tad longer than Horner's.
Still, the big-deal paleontologist has this laid-back quality to his voice that says he won't rush to judgment on anything and most assuredly will enjoy the ride there. He found his first dinosaur bone when was 8 and says that, really, "it's a matter of persistence. The next step in finding one worth finding."
He once told somebody that a paleontologist is missing an important tool if he doesn't have a good-looking hat.
And when Michael Crichton, the late author of blockbuster sci-fi novels, decided to conjure up a paleontologist for Jurassic Park, he looked around for someone real on which to build the character of Alan Grant. He found Horner in Montana, looking every bit the picture of a cool paleontologist.
Then Crichton and his pal Steven Spielberg hired Horner as a consultant when they made their movies, to make sure the dinosaur stuff was right.
"I'm the one who didn't get eaten," Horner says when asked which of the paleontologists was modeled after him.
Between finding that first bone and explaining Tyrannosaurus rex DNA to Academy Award winners, Horner had been hailed as one of the most important paleontologists in the country. His first major discovery was in the 1970s, when he found the first dinosaur eggs and embryos in the Western Hemisphere and, with fellow researcher Bob Makela, found the first nesting grounds of a North American hadrosaur in Montana. Because he found the hadrosaur, he got to name her, and because of what he found — that she was an exceptional mother — he named her Maiasaura, which translates to "good mother lizard." The fossilized eggs and burrows gave paleontologists their first look at parental care among dinosaurs. Two other dinosaur species of which Horner found evidence bear his name in some form.
Horner never graduated from college, but he received a MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant" in 1986, the same year the University of Montana gave him an honorary doctorate in science.
The genius designation didn't hurt him much, Horner says; he was doing what he loved before that and just kept doing it.
In 2000, the famous dinosaur finder was in eastern Montana's marshes when he found another T. rex bone, from an animal that had died 68 million years ago. That bone was, in layman's language, boiled, treated with enzymes, spun and reexamined with highly sophisticated technology. It revealed seven preserved fragments of protein in the dinosaur, five of which are commonly found in chickens.
By 2009, this molecular connection between dinosaurs and birds had sparked a scientific inquiry called evo-devo, which basically asserts that all evidence of who we used to be is contained in our genes. That, of course, could create the next step: a unique cloning opportunity.
As Horner explained to Wired magazine in 2009: "Birds are descendants of dinosaurs. They carry their DNA. So in its early stages, a chicken embryo will develop dinosaur traits like a long tail, teeth and three-fingered hands. If you can find the genes that cancel the tail and fuse the fingers to build a wing — and turn those genes off — you can grow animals with dinosaur characteristics."
He adds that the stuff is there in the chicken, and "we know exactly what to do" to make the chickenosaurus.
University of Kentucky professor of geology Frank Ettensohn, a member of the Kentucky Chapter of the American Institute of Professional Geologists, which is sponsoring Horner's visit, says that "in science, somebody has to think big and out of the box, and that's him."
Here's a guy, says Ettensohn, who can do the pop culture talk, dig the bones, imagine the future, even if it's far-flung, and have enough "street cred" to be taken seriously.
Horner understands that the neo-dinosaur talk thrills some people and terrifies others, and not just those who imagine flying dinosaurs eating their livestock.
"This is evolutionary proof," he says. "You can't do this until evolution works."