Montana State University

Spring 2016

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Mountains and Minds

Jack Horner, evolving May 10, 2016 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 05/10/16

Jack Horner
Montana State University’s famous paleontologist Jack Horner

Paleontologist Jack Horner will retire June 30 from Montana State University, but the internationally renowned professor will hardly slow down. Horner said he plans to continue his career indefinitely.

Horner’s reputation grew in the 33 years he was at MSU as he built the largest Tyrannosaurus rex collection in the world and discovered the first dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere, which established him as a leader in the now firmly held belief that dinosaurs were more like birds than reptiles.

Horner took a few minutes to discuss a variety of topics, including highlights of his career, his passion to help young dyslexics and what it’s like to work with filmmaker Steven Spielberg on the Jurassic Park movies.

What are your plans after you retire from MSU?

My plans following retirement from MSU are pretty extensive, and very exciting. The University of Washington is building a new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture on its campus and they are interested in expanding their dinosaur collection, and in particular, acquiring specimens from the Hell Creek Formation of Montana. So, I will help with that endeavor as a research scientist. Collecting from the Hell Creek Formation will, in effect, be an extension of the comprehensive Hell Creek project I initiated back in 1999. I will also be working with some well-known companies in the Seattle area helping to create interesting educational materials for kids.

I am also taking on a part-time position as a presidential scholar at Chapman University in Orange, California, where I will teach an honors class on imagination and creative thinking and work with the university president on initiatives to integrate kids with different learning styles into universities. I will also be working with some of the K–12 schools for dyslexic children in the LA area. It is something I have always wanted to help with.

I’m also hoping to be able to continue team teaching the very special honors class here at MSU called “Origins.” It is a class taught with physics professor Neil Cornish and Mike Miles (retired director of what is now MSU’s Honors College). It is a class we have been teaching for more than 15 years.

My current book (projects) include my autobiography, a third and final book about my research at the Museum of the Rockies, and a couple children’s books—one on coping with dyslexia and another on new ways of thinking about dinosaurs.

What do you see as your top three discoveries so far?

The funnest discovery I ever made was finding the first egg clutch with embryos. I had found the egg clutch a month before I discovered they contained baby skeletons. I had first seen the egg clutch on a walk over a hill that I had not gone over before, but it was just another egg clutch at the time, so I didn’t even get down on the ground to look at them in detail. I noted where they were, and thought I’d return the following year to collect them because it was the last day of our field season that year. But … Hugh Downs and the 20/20 crew came out to Montana in October of that year to shoot footage on Egg Mountain. Needless to say, October is not the best month to visit Montana for an outdoor TV shoot, as it was windy with flurries. But they came anyway and took the shots they were interested in, and then also wanted to see an egg clutch. So, I took them out to the one I had found a month earlier. Because of the flurries, I got down on the ground to point out the eggs and saw these tiny little bones around the eggs that had been broken open. I was stunned, but didn’t want to let them know about it, so I just ignored the embryos until they were finished shooting and had left the site. Later that day, I excavated them. Nineteen eggs with the embryos of what we would much later discover to be the meat-eating dinosaur called Troodon.

Dave Varricchio in the Department of Earth Sciences is the world’s expert on this particular dinosaur because of this discovery and many others from sites around Montana. Dave was one of my many grad students, and he now carries on the research I initiated at Egg Mountain so many years ago. It’s pretty cool, and quite frankly, I would list my grad students as my best discoveries, well over any fossils. Doctoral students like Dave and Mary Schweitzer and Chris Organ (also here at MSU) and Holly Woodward and John Scannella and Liz Freedman, and many more, all of whom have gone on to become well-known paleontologists. Former students I could not be more proud of.

When you started digging for dinosaurs in Montana, you were a technician for Princeton University, and Montanans were concerned about fossils leaving Montana. Now that you’ll be working with Washington and California institutions, how can you reassure Montanans about the future of their fossils?

When I was collecting dinosaurs for Princeton University back in the early 1980s, Montana had few dinosaur fossils. There was a pretty nice collection in Ekalaka and a few specimens strewn around other parts of the state, including here in Bozeman. But, all in all, most specimens were leaving the state. The collection that my teams and I have amassed over the past 33 years has fixed that problem, and we now have one of the largest dinosaur collections in America and what I would definitely consider the best dinosaur hall in all the world (at the Museum of the Rockies.)

It is my contention that Montana can now afford to share its fossils, and there are far more fossils than can ever be stored in Montana, so it’s great that other museums have space and money to care for them. When fossils from Montana are put on display in other states, their labels will state where they came from. We recently gave (long-term loaned) the Smithsonian a T. rex, and it will always say it came from Montana. We still have the largest T. rex collection in the world. Another thing to keep in mind is that most of these fossils come off of public land, so in effect, they actually belong to all the citizens of the United States, not just us here in Montana where they come from. I think it’s great that we now have an incredible dinosaur display and can share other specimens with the rest of our country.

You have been digging for dinosaurs for more than 40 years and said it’s time to retire from digging expeditions. Will you tell us about the physical challenges of working in the field?

I will continue to go into the field to collect specimens and data until the day I kick the bucket, because field work is in my blood. The UV rays, rattlesnakes and other physical obstacles have never been a problem, although the heat is beginning to get to me, so I prefer cooler days for my explorations. I have led expeditions since 1979, and from 1987 until 2013 we had concurrent expeditions, with as many as nine field crews out at once during the mid-1990s. I have also led numerous expeditions to other countries such as Mongolia, Argentina, Tanzania, Romania, France and Spain. I have trained a number of students from Mongolia, and I will continue to go there to do what I can to help that program continue to grow. And I will continue to go out with other institutions like the Burke Museum. I’m definitely not ready to throw in the towel on explorations.

Undiagnosed dyslexia caused you to drop out of college and affected you in other ways. How did your inability to read well affect you as a boy? What gave you the confidence to go on? How do you deal with dyslexia today?

Reading is still the very hardest thing I do in my life, but I’ve been lucky in having some great people around me that either helped me write or edited what I did write. Grade school through high school was tough going for me, since I couldn’t read (past the third-grade level), and I was extremely embarrassed when asked to stand and attempt to read out loud in classes. But, I spent a lot of time exploring the hills around my hometown of Shelby, and I found a whole lot of interesting fossils that I would put in exhibits in our county library. In high school, I made science projects, all of which won the local science fairs. So, even though I was doing very poorly in school, I was being given a lot of accolades for my exhibits and knowledge of fossils. I guess it countered the negative side of school.

When I was in college at the University of Montana, I put together a saber-toothed tiger skeleton and organized their fossil collections and collected more stuff for them. That all seemed to counter the bad grades and flunking out, at least in my mind … I still have a terrible time with written material, and have a particularly hard time now that I don’t have people to help me out.

When writing papers, I rely heavily on co-authors or really good editors, and I still to this day depend on people like that to help me out. I know my limitations, and they are many, but fortunately my students are really smart and do some really cool stuff I get to help with, and it often gets published in great journals.

Where do you do your best thinking and why?

I don’t think my mind ever slows down … I think all the time, regardless of where I am, which can be disconcerting for my friends as I probably always seem like a space cadet. Socially I’m very awkward and really don’t know much about anything other than dinosaurs, evolution and dyslexia … so that’s about all I ever think about or can even talk about. I have a great friend who is an artist, and I have begun to think about the arts in a much different way and have even begun to have an interest in such things. Obviously, it has been a long time coming.

If you had four more decades as a paleontologist, what would you investigate?

I think developmental biology is the future of paleontology and most other evolutionary sciences. I think we are not far from being able to resurrect extinct species, or to even make new kinds of animals. But field paleontology will always yield new kinds of extinct species, so I imagine there will always be plenty of people wandering the badlands in search of cool discoveries.

How fun has it been working as a consultant and extra for the Jurassic Park movies? What can you tell us about Steven Spielberg and the final movie in the series?

Going to the screenings and premieres of the Jurassic films was a pretty incredible experience as well. My “date,” assigned to me by Steven Spielberg to the first screening of Jurassic Park, was Fay Wray, the movie star who had played in the first King Kong movie back in the ’30s. And then, shortly after that event, Steven, Jeff Goldblum and I accompanied Princess Diana to the Jurassic Park premiere in London. All in all, working with Steven, Joe Johnston (the director of JP-III), and Colin (Trevorrow, director of Jurassic Park World), plus all the other wonderful people involved in these movies, like the producers Kathy Kennedy and Gerald Molen (from Great Falls) has been an incredible experience. And, no, I can’t tell you about the next Jurassic World movie!

Will you continue to live in Bozeman? Will you continue to work in any capacity for the Museum of the Rockies?

I will keep my apartment here in Bozeman and hope to spend all of my summers here, as well as teach the honors “Origins” class at MSU starting in the fall of 2017. I will teach at Chapman University during spring semesters—basically winter and mud seasons—for at least three years starting in 2017. As for work at the Museum of the Rockies, I probably will do more in a few years once a new curator is hired and established, but not right away.

You must have had many offers to work elsewhere. What kept you at MSU for 33 years?

Montana is my home, and it was always my dream to have the best dinosaur museum in the world in the state. I dreamt of it as a child. I even made drawings of how I imagined it would look. It actually turned out much better than I had imagined, but my part of it is now finished, and it will be up to future curators to update it with their research. It’s made to evolve with new information.

But, yes, I have had many offers to go other places, including the Smithsonian and the Natural History Museum in London, or back to Ivy League schools in the East. But, I had had enough of the East working at Princeton University in the beginning of my career. I loved the woods and I loved Princeton’s campus, but the East Coast was just not my thing. It had been seven years of constant culture shock for me and I never got used to it. When I was leaving Princeton, someone asked how I could leave such a prestigious institution as Princeton to go to Montana State, and I didn’t say a word. I just smiled at him and walked away.

Obviously a career can be built anywhere, but it’s always a lot easier if you are in a place where you feel at home. Now, with a career well established, I can make short forays to Seattle and LA to help with other things, but Montana will always be home. Its two incredible universities and my hometown will always be in my heart. ■