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Interviews: Ask What You Will of Paleontologist Jack Horner 208

John "Jack" R. Horner is the Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, adjunct curator at the National Museum of Natural History, and one of the most famous paleontologists in the world. Known in the scientific community for his research on dinosaur growth and whether or not some species lived in social groups, he is most famous for his work on Jurassic Park and being the inspiration for the character of Alan Grant. Horner caused quite a stir with the publication of his book, How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever, in which he proposes creating a "chickensaurus" by genetically "nudging" the DNA of a chicken. Jack has agreed to step away from the genetics lab and put down the bones in order to answer your questions. As usual, you're invited to ask as many questions as you'd like, but please divide them, one question per post.
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Interviews: Ask What You Will of Paleontologist Jack Horner

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  • by vistapwns ( 1103935 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @12:35PM (#42680839)
    Assuming you had some great technology that could collect it, is there any possible source of dinosaur DNA that would allow a more or less complete rebuild of a dinosaur (again assuming great futuristic technology that can accomplish this - think nanobots and strong AI)? Or is all dinosaur DNA forever gone? Or is it an undecided question?
    • DNA breaks down too rapidly to be intact in soft tissues that old. One of Horner's students managed to find such soft tissues a few years ago, but since DNA has a halflife of about 521 years [] (depending on the environment), there isn't going to be any DNA left in it.

      • by nbauman ( 624611 )

        “I am very interested to see if these findings can be reproduced in very different environments such as permafrost and caves,” says Michael Knapp, a palaeogeneticist at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Your dinochicken could be the perfect way for KFC to transition to serving actual chicken.

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @12:38PM (#42680861)
    The 20th anniversary enhanced version will return to theaters in a few weeks. Supposedly Crichton modeled the Sam Neill character partly after you. What positive and negative things did this movie do for dinosaur paleontology? I would have thought it got a few more children interested in the subject.
    • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @01:11PM (#42681177)

      Should the raptors have feathers?

    • I've never found that children lack interest in dinosaurs.

    • And speaking of Jurassic Park, considering your chicken modifying idea, do you think that Jurassic Park had a positive message?

  • Chickensaurus? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @12:41PM (#42680887)

    If I were going to fund 1 program, which should I fund chickensaurus over resurrecting a Neanderthal, Woolly Mammoth, or a Tasmanian Tiger? I mean they are all valid – but please make your case on why you should go first.

  • From time I spent playing with kids and miniature plastic dinosaurs, I imagine the popularity of your chickenosaurus project would be enormous. If you succeed, do you have a plan to fund future genetic research by marketing the animals as pets?

    • by Chemisor ( 97276 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @02:29PM (#42682045)

      Oh, dear. I just imagined playing fetch with my pet brontosaurus in the park. Here Nessie, Here Nessie. THUDUMP THUDUMP THUDUMP. Watch out for the doggie! Eeeeeoow. SPLAT. THUDUMP THUDUMP THUDUMP. Good girl!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 24, 2013 @12:43PM (#42680909)
    Did your mother ever make you sit in a corner []?
  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday January 24, 2013 @12:44PM (#42680921) Journal
    Something that's always made me curious about Paleontology is how far the study has come. If we look back historically at how dinosaur bones were exhumed and treated, some of the methods were actually a little bit destructive. So I've always wondered how paleontologists today cope with the fact that 100 years in the future we will likely have technology beyond our wildest dreams that will be able to scan the ground and find fossils in their original preserved intact positions and when they are excavated the process will surely be much more refined and exact measurements will be taken to better understand dinosaurs. I'm sure preservation techniques and materials science will allow us to even better handle finds. How do you cope with this idea that hundreds of years from now your efforts might be seen as crude or arcane? Do you ever wish that some paleontologists of the past had just left the specimens lying there for a future paleontologist to properly handle? Or do you just see this as a necessary way to move forward? Building on that, is there an end-game for paleontologists where the entire Earth has been inspected/surveyed and how many years out is that (I understand that sensor technology would have to come a very long way)?
    • That's a chicken and egg problem. If the early paleontologists had never recovered their specimens, Mr. Jack Horner would never have been inspired to spend his life studying old bones. Likewise, if today's paleontologists didn't recover their specimens, then the future "perfected" paleontological methods would never come to be.

  • For a long time the primary source of money for scientific research has been the federal granting agencies (NIH, NSF, DOE in particular). All three of them are facing either budget cuts, budget stalls, or increases in their budgets that do not match inflation. This does not seem to fare well for new scientists or established ones who are looking to further their careers.

    Where do you see research money coming from next? Alternately, are we looking ahead to a time where fewer people will be doing science because the funding just won't exist to pay even their meager wages any more?
  • Which dinosaur would taste the best on my grill this summer? Can we move that type of dinosaur to the front of the genetically-recreated line?

    • Wouldn't it depend on what it ate?

      Your carrion eaters are going to be nasty, and your herbivores tastier -- at least, that's how it generally works.

      And then you can get more specific, like grass, corn or grain fed.

      • I am filing a patent for Kobe Velociraptor. They spend their live eating Kobe Beef.

        • Well, unless you live in Japan, you mean Wagyu [], not Kobe.

          It's like Champagne and Parma ham ... only stuff which comes from that area gets that name (despite the US tendency to let people call it that).

  • will you adopt me?
  • We discovered dinosaurs got feathers, then we even figured out colors of feathers. What is the next big thing we'll learn about dinosaurs in the nearest future?
  • When you dig up an old bone, is there an easy way to distinguish the ones that the Devil planted to lure scientists to hell, vs. the ones that came from creatures that genuinely lived before creation?

    • At first I was going to moderate this insightful, and hopefully un-troll the existing comments, but I figured I'd just reply.

      While the question is whimsical, it's still on point.

      How do you fight the ignorance around your science, and the misinformation from young-earth idiots?

  • by Khashishi ( 775369 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @12:58PM (#42681043) Journal

    How much have you been influenced by the attempts to breed back aurochs by the Heck brothers? The Heck cattle bear some resemblance to the extinct aurochs. The degree of success is controversial, because there are very significant differences between the aurochs and the Heck cattle. Some believe that the whole idea of breeding back is deeply flawed, because you cannot achieve a genotypical match by working from phenotypical measures..

  • Paleocene dinosaurs (Score:4, Interesting)

    by niado ( 1650369 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @01:00PM (#42681073)
    So, first of all this is hands-down the best Slashdot interview ever!

    On to my actual question: what do you think about the possible existence of Paleocene dinosaurs? I understand that any current fossil evidence for their existence is likely caused by reworked fossils. How likely do you believe it is that a particular dinosaur taxon survived a few million years after the extinction event, and what would be the implications of this occurring?
    • How likely do you believe it is that a particular dinosaur taxon survived a few million years after the extinction event, and what would be the implications of this occurring?

      Last I heard, birds are a subset of dinosauria, and since I can see a couple of birds by looking over the top of my display, I'd say it was pretty much 100% certain that some dinosaurs survived that particular extinction event.

      • by niado ( 1650369 )
        Well, I could have specified "non-avian dinosaur taxon" but that should be obvious by context. Birds were already somewhat diverse in the Cretaceous and any non-avian dinosaurs that survived K-T would not be ancestral to birds.
      • When people talk about "Paleocene dinosaurs," they specifically mean the non-avian kinds. Specifically, there are some fossils which may indicate that some hadrosaurs survived the extinction event.

  • Job Elements (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Chaseshaw ( 1486811 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @01:01PM (#42681079)
    I wanted to be a paleontologist my entire life (and still do) but I ended up in computers because of the money. However I still daydream about it. What is the best part of your job? What's the worst?
  • Dinosaur skin (Score:4, Interesting)

    by smooth wombat ( 796938 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @01:02PM (#42681089) Journal

    Slightly off base from your normal work, how often is dinosaur skin, or its impression, found when fossils are located and has any type of color ever been found associated with the skin?

  • Could we hope to find for example Ammonite or Trilobite fossils on Mars, because there was once water there and Ammonites and Trilobites are what one might call "Standard Default Species Evolution Step" or an "Evolutionary Stable Species State" when there is water and you give things a few hundred million years ?
  • by RNLockwood ( 224353 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @01:05PM (#42681121) Homepage

    Domestication changes genes and presumably the epigenome. Wouldn't it be more reasonable to pick an undomesticated bird, perhaps a more "primitive" one than the highly domesticated chicken as the DNA source to "clone" a dinosaur?

  • by GodfatherofSoul ( 174979 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @01:05PM (#42681123)

    You don't hear a lot about porn stars going into paleontology...

    • He was a film maker--An artist. The Musem of the Rockies is not in business to support pornography.

  • I understand the reason for theropods having the need to swallow big hunks of meat but that capability would much more easily come from a wide jaw.

    Theropods, I would think, wouldn't need to keep a narrow jaw profile like a snake because theropods didn't have to slither into narrow openings. There doesn't seem to be any obviously good reason for theropods to have a jaw that's narrow when they're not swallowing big hunks of meat and wide when they are.

  • How would you respond if a billionaire offered you, say, $100 million to fund a lab and give you the means to create a chickensaurus with one condition: They get the first able specimen to release it on a reserve, hunt it and kill it? I know it sounds absurd but I wouldn't put it past the GoDaddy CEO [].
  • I know this is not really your area, but what are your thoughts on the recent discovery that early humans interbred with at least Neanderthals and Denisovans? Do you think there will be further discoveries of different Homo species that our ancestors associated closely with?
  • In science (even computer science) I have a lot of interest in what we know we don't know and what we don't know we don't know. With paleontology and it's subdomains -- specifically your specialty of dinosaur growth -- how do you deal with what must be an unbound realm of what we don't know we don't know? For example, isn't it possible that growth was regulated completely differently in dinosaurs than it is in modern day lizards and birds? Couldn't modern day hormones and endocrine system be much different than what was present in dinosaurs? When you publish research is it all based on assumptions? How do you overcome such an open system of possibilities?
  • How do you think the Permian-Triassic extinction event affected the evolution of dinosaurs and birds? Do you think they would have never existed without it, or would they have been even more diverse?
  • K-T Extinction Event (Score:4, Interesting)

    by niado ( 1650369 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @01:20PM (#42681283)
    So, let's pretend the K-T event never happened and dinosaurs survived into the Holocene. What do you think the world's fauna would be like now? How would dinosaur evolution have progressed? Assuming humans had still come onto the scene (because it would be so cool) would we have driven the dinosaurs to extinction by now?
  • There are currently ongoing attempts to bring back certain extinct species using recovered DNA. What is your prediction for the success of this? How long before we will be successful and what will be the first species we are able to resurrect?
  • Kickstarter for pet raptors, buddy. Let's light this candle.

  • The Known Unknowns (Score:5, Interesting)

    by medcalf ( 68293 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @01:39PM (#42681465) Homepage
    What are the current big, unanswered questions in mesozoic paleontology? That is, what are the questions we have, but do not yet have more than guessed answers for?
  • When many of us here at Slashdot were in high school, it was more or less taken for granted that dinosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles with scales...and later, around college, books started to mention birds as the likely descendants of dinosaurs. Are big dinos like T.Rex, Stegosaurus, etc.still widely believed by researchers to have been cold-blooded reptiles, or is it more likely that dinos like T.Rex were more like a big ostrich than an alligator walking on its hind legs, and that they might have been war

  • Your work and courage in pursuing conclusions that observation provided should be an example and inspiration to everyone in the sciences. I am sure it has not only been a long road, but one filled with landmines and pot holes. For this, you are owed many more thanks than can be expressed only in words.
  • We all know Paleontology has a major problem in that its techniques for dating the organisms it studies regularly, as the dates are clearly so much further back than Biblical evidence clearly points. How much research now is going into reconciling your fields farcial dates with realistic ones based on the evidence?

  • Dr. Horner, you have inspired me to engage in the sciences ever since I was a little kid. Although I didn't go into the field of paleontology, I did study computer science and became a software developer for an education company. In my field, we are always trying to find ways to engage kids in the STEM fields to help develop the next generation of engineers, programmers, biologists, and even paleontologists. In your opinion, how do you see the future of your field within the next generation of scientists

  • What effects have you noticed on the field of Paleontology from the movie Jurassic Park, and your participation (as advisor) in it? More widespread misconceptions based on movie magic? More (or fewer) students? Funding?

  • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Thursday January 24, 2013 @02:11PM (#42681855) Homepage Journal

    This one is from my 6-year-old boy, Will. We're currently reading a book about dinosaurs (he gets three per bedtime). He wants to know, "how many dinosaurs haven't been discovered yet?" One of his favorites is one that was discovered in China fairly recently (many of the famous ones seem to come from the US midwest from the early part of last century).

    While his question is impossible to answer on its own, do paleontologists have a sense of whether the types of soils likely to hold fossils have been well explored, or if we've merely scratched the surface [sic] of what's to come?

  • by 0111 1110 ( 518466 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @02:13PM (#42681873)

    Why start with a chicken instead of an Emu or Cassowary? Those large flightless birds already look a lot more like dinosaurs than a chicken. They even have 3 toes. With a longer tail and some teeth they would seem very dinosaur-like.

    • I'm guessing commercial interest. Kentucky Fried Raptor. Roscoe's Dino and Waffles. Church's Cretaceous...

    • Chickens are small and therefore more manageable than the larger birds, and they breed quickly. It's the same reason that mice are the main choice for mammalian models in biology, rather than say, pigs.

  • Do you find as a paleontologist that you're followed around by nerd groupies? You know, those hot young girls that read scientific journals, and want to get down to your Paleozoic?

  • Plum (Score:2, Funny)

    by dr_dank ( 472072 )

    How did pulling out a plum lead you to conclude that you were a good boy?

  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but to find dinosaurs you just start digging in mesozoic-aged sedimentary rock, correct? Do you focus on alluvial deposits?

  • by SoCalChris ( 573049 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @02:35PM (#42682145) Journal

    I don't have a question, but a comment on the Museum of the Rockies. This is an excellent little museum, and well worth the visit. Anyone who goes to Yellowstone, the 1.5 hour trek to Bozeman is well worth the drive. The drive will take you past many geological formations, such as the Devil's Slide [], and often takes you past quite a bit of wildlife like elk, bighorn sheep, bears and bald eagles.

    The museum is very enjoyable and educational for both children and adults.

  • I seem to recall that years ago when people questioning if birds evolved from dinosaurs, you met a fair bit of skepticism.

    Recognizing the similarities between them has changed how we think of them as big, lumbering cold-blooded beasts.

    How's it feel now that acceptance of that idea has turned around the other way and you were right all along?

  • Your famous for not having earned your degree, yet you persevered and your reputation for your work goes far outside your field. How hard was it to be taken seriously in your field without the required degree? I ask as someone who also works in a University at a senior level without a degree.

  • I have seen a protracted fungal spike mentioned as an argument against the Permian Triassic extinction being due to a single event [a series of bolide impacts, etc].

    However, from what I had seen, that fungal spike appears only in the African karoo, which -- between that and the Hudson -- look to me like ideal candidate locations for de-Meijer/Van Westrenen style georeactor explosions (that, based on rings of kimberlites around both, and what looks like identical-shaped and identical- oriented scars in both

  • Since I've been reading Slashdot this is the "ask" article that has drawn the most joke questions, easily. Even more than RMS' article, and Jack Horner has a reasonable haircut and hasn't been caught on video eating his own foot scabs. Now some of the jokes are quite funny, but still...I hope the editors will pre-screen the joke questions out for him.

  • What is your opinion of the thick atmosphere theory which would render resurrecting an actual dinosaur impossible (i.e. it would explode due to the pressure differential) ? The theory with proof is posted at : []

  • For myself, I take a hard interpretation of the scientific method that it only applies to predictions about the future. Predictions that can be tested. If I run an experiment and the prediction fails, the theory is invalidated. To pick an example from physics, if I throw a coconut, I should be able to predict where and how fast it will be at different times in the future during its flight. If the coconut didn't fly (within error) of Netwon's predictions, it would invalidate Netwon's Laws.

    This "hard" int

  • Is "dinosaur" a misnomer? That is, are theropods and sauropods actually any more closely related than, say, birds and lizards?
    • Dinosaurs are a monophyletic clade as long as you include birds, which descended from the Theropods.

      Theropods and Sauropods [] are much more closely related to each other than to lizards []. They're even both on the Saurischian branch. All of the above are Diapsids [] in the Sauria clade, but the ancestors of the lizards and snakes (Lepidosauromorpha) branched off from the ancestors of the crocoldilians and Dinosaurs (Archosauromorpha). I've spent way too much time looking at dinosaur phylogeny lately.

      It's the term

  • How many species, estimated, do you think remain undiscovered? Would you say your field is closer to the end, or the beginning? And what was the most unlikely find you'd like to share?

  • In your view, was the T. Rex primarily an active hunter, a scavenger, or somewhere in between? A variety of models have come out lately describing the possible energetics for theropods and different conclusions have been drawn as to how fast the big guys could move - or how much energy they would have to expend in order to move at a certain pace.
  • Everyone's talking about re-creating famous species like the Woolly Mammoth, Tazmanian Devil, and dinosaurs. Are there any efforts that you have heard of to re-create lesser-known extinct species? Is anyone trying to recreate the Dodo (for food)? Glyptodon (as a pack animal)? The Giant Sloth (for fun)?

  • by Camel Pilot ( 78781 ) on Thursday January 24, 2013 @06:54PM (#42684927) Homepage Journal

    My son is a sophomore in college and is consider a career in paleontology. I don't really know how to advise him and not sure of the prospects. He has the passion, grades and ambition. What advice would you have for a young person enter the field and what undergraduate degree would you recommend.

  • I collect mineral specimens (primarily crystal-populated geodes) from the eastern portions of Fort Peck Lake, working my way along the shoreline. I also find, and collect, interesting invertebrate fossils such as crabs, clams and so forth. Vertebrate fossil collection is, as far as I know, illegal for the average citizen under any circumstances on public land, so I leave them where I find them.

    The reason I collect at the shoreline is because the rapid erosion from the lake's waves constantly expose new spec

  • I remember reading several years ago about the discovery that dinosaur soft bone marrow had been found.

    What are the implications of this and what changes have this discovery lead to in our understanding?

    Also how has this changed the handling of fossils?

Nondeterminism means never having to say you are wrong.