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'Jurassic World': Paleontologist who inspired Alan Grant role talks real-life dino science

Jack Horner explains dinosaur biology and behavior, and whether one day we could have pet dinos.
by Sarah Cahlan /  / Updated 
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” opening on Friday, is the latest installment of the "Jurassic Park" movie franchise.Universal Pictures
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The latest installment in the "Jurassic Park" movie franchise opens this week, and like its predecessors, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” presents a world where modern-day humans are terrorized by dinosaurs brought to life by advanced scientific techniques.

The story is make-believe, of course, but it's not entirely devoid of science. No one knows that better than Jack Horner, a Montana State University paleontologist who served as science adviser to the original movie and some of the subsequent ones — and who was the inspiration for Dr. Alan Grant, the fictional paleontologist portrayed by actor Sam Neill in the first movies.

Recently, NBC News MACH spoke with Horner via telephone and email, asking about his work on the movies as well as his own research, which has changed our understanding of dinosaur behavior and could lead to the creation of modern-day animals with dinosaur-like features (he’s now working on something he calls “chickenosaurus”). The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MACH: How did you get interested in dinosaurs?

Horner: It was a combination of a lot of things. First, all kids like dinosaurs. They're big, they're different than anything alive today and they're extinct. They're just giant imagination engines.

Jack Horner
Paleontologist Jack Horner at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles in 2015.Alex J. Berliner / AP file

What about them excites you?

I'm just really curious about their lives and how they lived, and how they interacted — considering the fact that they gave rise to birds, but they are reptiles. We've been learning an incredible amount of new stuff about them. They weren't just big stupid reptiles. They were warm-blooded and very social animals. I was fortunate enough to discover the first embryos, nesting grounds, giant herds and other stuff that gave us a pretty nice picture of what dinosaurs were like as living animals.

How did you get involved in the "Jurassic Park" films?

[Writer] Michael Crichton had based his Alan Grant character loosely on me and acknowledged getting his information on me from a book I had published in 1988 entitled “Digging Dinosaurs.” Then, I think it was early in 1991, associate producer Lata Ryan called me and said Steven Spielberg wanted to know if I would consider working on the movie production of “Jurassic Park” as a scientific consultant. I said yes. Shortly after that, I was invited to the Amblin offices at Universal Studios, where I met Steven and other crew members.

What exactly did you do as the paleontology consultant for the original movie?

My job was to help make sure the dinosaurs were as accurate as they could be — based on the science of 1990. I also worked with Steven on set when animatronics was being shot. Steven would ask about the accuracy of particular movements, and the actors had questions about pronunciation. Steven also asked that I spend some time with Sam Neill. I also worked a bit on sets, and with writer David Koepp. I was also present for questions at the outdoor shoot at the dig site. The person I worked closest with was producer Kathy Kennedy, and that was the case for each of the first three movies.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Can we really clone dinosaurs like in the "Jurassic Park" movies?Universal Pictures

Did you ever object to the ways dinosaurs were portrayed in the movies?

Yes, in the kitchen scene Steven and [visual effects producer] Phil Tippett had decided on having the raptors enter the kitchen and wave their forked tongues around like snakes. I told them that there was no possible way dinosaurs would or could do that because they didn’t have forked tongues. I also mentioned that by giving them forked tongues they were adding to the notion that dinosaurs were more like their cold-blooded relatives such as lizards than their warm-blooded relatives like birds. Steven agreed to change that scene. In its place, the raptors come to the kitchen door and snort, fogging up the window as only a warm-blooded animal can do.

Was it hard to provide scientific guidance for films that are essentially science fiction?

Not at all. I wanted to see a good movie too. "Jurassic Park" was a fictional movie. We weren't trying to make a documentary. My job was to get a little science into "Jurassic Park," but not ruin it.

There's a lot of the movie that's based in science. In "Jurassic Park," we have a little dancing DNA guy that talks about what DNA is. That's pretty scientific. Also, in 1993, the dinosaurs were pretty much what we thought they looked like. Nowadays, we know that that isn't how they looked. We now know that the meat-eating dinosaurs were feathered and that dinosaurs were probably much more colorful than we see them in the movie. Dinosaurs were more bird-like.

What about dinosaurs chasing cars and terrorizing people? Is that realistic?

Only in Steven Spielberg’s imagination. Visiting a dinosaur park would be like going to a wild animal park. As long as you keep your windows rolled up, nobody's going to bother you. But that doesn't make a very good movie.

What else about the movies is scientifically inaccurate?

We can't clone dinosaurs. We can't get any of their DNA. Even if we had dinosaur DNA, we don't know how to actually form an animal just from DNA. The animal cloning that we do these days is with a live cell. We don't have any dinosaur live cells. The whole business of having a dinosaur is a lot of fiction.

If you could recreate a dinosaur, would you?

Of course, I would. Let me ask you a question. Would you? Would you say, "Oh, no. I don't want to see a dinosaur. They're too scary." Of course you wouldn’t. There is not a single person in this world that wouldn't want to see a dinosaur.

I guess the question is, should we?

Everybody's ethics are a little different. The Jeff Goldblum character is a strange scientist because most scientists think that we should try to discover everything that's discoverable. As far as I'm concerned, we should discover everything. There shouldn't be any limits on it. After we discover something, then you can put some limits on it.

What was your favorite part about working on the movies?

I liked all of it. It was a lot of fun working with Steven Spielberg and seeing how he does his job. I came to the conclusion at the end that I would never trade my job for their job. It's cool to see a movie when it's finished, but a lot of it's really boring. It's very repetitious.

Are you ok with people learning about dinosaurs via the films?

Absolutely. When I started, back in the late '80s, I had a few students that wanted to work with me and dig up dinosaurs. They were all guys. Then, the movie came out and an incredible number of people wanted to be paleontologists. And it was about fifty-fifty guys and girls. The [original] movie did an incredible service for paleontology and got everybody interested in dinosaurs.

What do people still get wrong about dinosaurs?

There are still a lot of people who think dinosaurs and people lived together. Obviously, they didn't. There's about 65 million years in between them. Then, there is the whole myth of T. rex being this top predator. I argue that he was probably more of an opportunist or a scavenger. As you could imagine, especially sixth-grader boys, people do not like that at all. They want T. rex to be the king of all kings.

What about your current research?

I'm working on a project to see if we can bring back some dinosaur characteristics that have been lost through evolution. Genetically speaking, those are called animistic genes — basically genes that were important to dinosaurs that birds have since lost through evolution. Our project really is to look for these animistic genes and turn them back on again and see if we can get an animal a little bit more like a dinosaur.

Is that animal the chickenosaurus?

Yeah.

What do you hope to learn from making a chickenosaurus?

I hope to have a pet dinosaur [laughs].

We’re learning a great deal. In fact, our team had a paper that came out in [the journal] Scientific Reports that revealed some insight about how the tail actually forms. The cool thing about science is you never know when you're going to discover something new.

If you were a dinosaur, which one would you be?

There's certainly a lot to be said about a Tyrannosaurus rex, even a scavenging one. He’s a scary-looking dinosaur. He's gigantic — 40 feet long — weighed probably somewhere around 10,000 pounds. On the other hand, little velociraptors — five of them probably could take a T. rex down. Then again, a T. rex could step on a velociraptor. There's advantages and disadvantages. But I would probably pick a duck-billed dinosaur in a giant herd.

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