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Jack Horner: Why Do We Continue To Care About Dinosaurs?

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Jack Horner: Why Do We Continue To Care About Dinosaurs?

Jack Horner: Why Do We Continue To Care About Dinosaurs?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today, How It All Began, ideas about our origins and the things that came before us. So think back to your own recent origins, when you were a kid. You probably had a favorite dinosaur right?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: My favorite dinosaur is a T-Rex.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: T-Rex.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: It's probably a T-Rex.

RAZ: We tried this question out on some kids at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum here in Washington, D.C., and we found some striking uniformity.

RAZ: What's your favorite dinosaur?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY # 3: T-Rex.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: A T-Rex.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #4: A T-Rex.

RAZ: A T-Rex again.

These kids were between 5 and 12, and when you tried to pin them down on why, why the T-Rex is their favorite...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #4: Because...

RAZ: ...Well...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL # 4: It's the king and...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #4: The T-Rex's teeth are as big as a banana.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #4: It's like eating bones and people and stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY # 5: It's kind of like my dream monster if you think about it.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL # 4: Because it's scary and big.

RAZ: What is the sound that a T-Rex makes?

(SOUNDS OF CHILDREN IMITATING T-REX NOISE)

RAZ: So what is it about these creatures, who lived so long before we did, that speaks to us about our own origins?

JACK HORNER: They're gone, and they're very different from anything alive today.

RAZ: This is Jack Horner.

HORNER: I'm the curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.

RAZ: Jack Horner is like other scientists who are trying to piece together parts of our past. Some of them simulate the Big Bang inside massive particle colliders; others look deep into space through giant telescopes to see the past. And in Jack's case, he's also on a quest to bring some of that distant past, literally back to life. And it all started with, "Jurassic Park."

HORNER: The Tyrannosaurus Rex they made in the first movie was just incredibly real looking.

RAZ: Jack was and advisor on the film and he was even the inspiration for one of the main characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JURASSIC PARK")

SAM NEILL: (As Dr. Alan Grant) Keep absolutely still.

RAZ: Dr. Alan Grant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JURASSIC PARK")

NEILL: (As Dr. Alan Grant) It's vision's based on movement.

HORNER: I guess the fortunate thing about that is that he didn't get eaten.

RAZ: (Laughter) And it was seeing the T-Rex so lifelike on the big screen that reignited something in Jack.

HORNER: It was one of the things that sparked my interest in actually trying to make a dinosaur.

RAZ: Just like in the movie, Jack Horner wants to make a real-life dinosaur, but one a little friendlier than the T-Rex, one he says you could actually can have as a pet.

What kind of pet dinosaur would you have?

HORNER: Why I'd have a chickenosaurus.

RAZ: A chickenosaurus. Actually it's not that different from what Jack's characters did in, "Jurassic Park."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JURASSIC PARK")

NEILL: (As Dr. Alan Grant) Well, maybe dinosaurs have more in common with present-day birds than they do with reptiles.

RAZ: In this scene, Dr. Alan Grant is examining a Velociraptor fossil.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JURASSIC PARK")

NEILL: (As Dr. Alan Grant) Look at the pubic bone. It turns backward just like a bird. Look at the vertebrate, full of air-sacks and hollows just like a bird. And even the word raptor means bird of prey.

RAZ: And even if we can't make a dinosaur like they did in, "Jurassic Park," could a bird, could a chicken get us closer? Here's Jack Horner big idea from the Ted stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HORNER: The theme of this story is building a dinosaur and so we come to that part of, "Jurassic Park." This is, you know, Michael Crichton really was one of the first people to talk about bringing dinosaurs back to life. If you want dinosaur DNA, I say, go to the dinosaur. Back in 1993, when the movie came out we actually had a grant from the National Science Foundation to attempt to extract DNA from a dinosaur. But we have discovered that dinosaur DNA and all DNA just breaks down too fast. We're just not going to be able to do what they did in, "Jurassic Park." We're not going to be able to make a dinosaur based on a dinosaur. But birds are dinosaurs. Birds are living dinosaurs. So we don't have to make a dinosaur, 'cause we already have them.

(LAUGHTER)

HORNER: I know, you're as bad as the sixth graders, right?

(LAUGHTER)

HORNER: The sixth graders look at it and they say, no. You can call it a dinosaur, but look at the Velociraptor, the Velociraptor is... (LAUGHTER)

HORNER: Fix the chicken. So we have a number of ways that we actually can, fix, the chicken. We'll call them biological modification tools. We have selection and we know selection works, right? I mean, we started out with a wolf-like creature, and we end up with a Maltese. I mean, that's definitely genetic modification. We also have transgenesis. Transgenesis is really cool, too. That's where you take a gene out of one animal and stick it in another one. You know, that's how people make Glofish. You take gene - a glow gene out of a coral or jellyfish and stick it in a zebrafish, and they glow. And I guess we could make a glow chicken. But I don't think that will satisfy the sixth-graders either.

RAZ: Jack's solution is to focus on something buried deep in the origin of the chicken. For instance, every chicken, while it is still an embryo, actually has a three-fingered hand. But at some point a gene switches on and the triggers...

HORNER: The fusion of the hand and so there are genes that have fused the fingers together basically to form the wing.

RAZ: The idea is that if scientist could figure out a way to stop those genes from activating...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HORNER: We can get a chicken that hatches out with a three-fingered hand, and the same goes for the tails. We know that in embryo, as the animal is developing, it actually has a relatively long tail. But a gene turns on and resorbs the tail, gets rid of it. So that's the other gene we're looking for. We want to stop that tail from resorbing. So what we're trying to do really is take our chicken, modify it and make a chickenosaurus.

(LAUGHTER)

HORNER: You can just imagine a chicken, if it had a long, bony tail and a three-fingered hand instead of wings, it would be a long ways to looking like a Velociraptor even then.

RAZ: Wow, Jack, you are freaking me out a little bit.

HORNER: You know, when I explain this sort of thing to people and people do get kind of weirded-out, I try to take them back to dogs, for example, you know, with a Chihuahua. They've basically bred for an animal that looks like the embryonic wolf. And so if you can be happy with that, I surely don't understand why a bird with a tail is going to freak anybody out.

RAZ: Oh, don't get me wrong, I will be the first in line to see the chickenosaurus.

HORNER: Well, we're working on it.

RAZ: Now even though a living, breathing chickenosaurus is still a long way off, Jack says even just the idea of one is still one way to get kids closer to our collective past.

HORNER: Absolutely. And it also, you know, teaches them about evolution. And one of the cool things, I think about dinosaurs, is it allows, you know, kids get interested. And they just soak up all this information about dinosaurs, and early on they know more than their parents. And so they really fuel the imagination of kids. And even as a paleontologist, I imagine them fighting. I imagine them roaming around. They still fuel my imagination.

RAZ: When you think about the time periods that we're talking about, you know, such a long period of time has passed since then. Does studying dinosaurs kind of put, you know, the human era into perspective for you as almost like a kind a blip in time?

HORNER: Well, let me give you a different perspective, just, you know, take any group of dinosaurs, like horn dinosaurs, the amount of time that horn dinosaurs were on Earth and the amount of time they had to evolve was greater than the period of time since they've gone extinct to now.

RAZ: Wow.

HORNER: So trying to put the blimp of time into perspective, I mean, we have had zero time as far as humans go.

RAZ: Jack Horner, his TED Talk is at ted.npr.org. By the way, he's also advising the filmmakers behind next year's "Jurassic Park 4."

HORNER: I've been on the set.

RAZ: So can you tell us, you know, tell a little bit?

HORNER: Well, I can't tell you.

RAZ: We won't tell, we won't tell anybody.

HORNER: It's a great story, and it's got a really, really scary new dinosaur.

RAZ: Aw, what kind?

HORNER: I can't tell you.

RAZ: Does it have feathers?

HORNER: Nope, doesn't have feathers.

RAZ: Does it have really sharp teeth?

HORNER: Yes it does.

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