Q&A with a Dinosaur Hunter: How Jack Horner Changed Paleontology
Paleontologist Jack Horner found his first dinosaur at age 8, and he hasn’t stopped “digging” since. Despite his dyslexia and never having graduated from college, Horner changed the way researchers study dinosaurs, and is now a professor of paleontology at Montana State University and a curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies.
Growing up with dyslexia
Live Science: When did you start getting interested in dinosaurs?
Horner: I’ve been interested in paleontology my whole life. I found my first dinosaur bone when I was 8, and I found my first dinosaur skeleton when I was 13.
Live Science: How did you find a dinosaur bone when you were 8 years old?
Horner: My father had remembered seeing some big bones when he was young out on a ranch that he owned in Montana. He took me out there when I was interested, and I wandered around until I found one.
Live Science: I heard that you have dyslexia. How did that affect you growing up?
Horner: Growing up was just terrible, because everybody thinks you’re stupid and lazy. It’s funny that they didn’t understand that a long time ago. And they still don’t. There’s still a disconnect between kids who have learning problems and people understanding them.
One of the things that I’ll be working on is with the chancellor at Chapman University, in Orange, California. We’re going to see if we can figure out ways to better integrate kids with dyslexia schools into universities.
Live Science: I heard you flunked out of college seven times. But you kept going back?
Jack Horner: I wanted to be a paleontologist, and there were lots of courses in paleontology at the University of Montana, where I was going to school. And so I just kept on taking them. But I read at a low third-grade level, so there wasn’t any possible way that I could pass the test.
Live Science: That sounds really difficult.
Horner: Yeah, it’s just impossible. A person with dyslexia is good at spatial things and putting big ideas together and making new ideas. But we’re not very good at anything that schools have designed to test people.
I went to college for seven years and I flunked out seven times. When I thought I was finished, I started applying for jobs. I basically looked at all of the English-speaking museums in the country and other parts of the world. I got three job offers, and I took a museum technician job at Princeton University just because it was the smallest town. [7 Science Museums to Visit This Summer]
Live Science: So you didn’t get a degree?
Horner: No, I do not have a degree of any kind. I got two honorary doctorates, but I do not have a normal degree — not a bachelor’s, a master’s or a Ph.D.
I went to Princeton as a preparator [a person who prepares, installs and maintains museum exhibits] in 1975 and discovered the baby dinosaurs in Montana in 1978. So, three years later, I published my first paper in the journal Nature.
Live Science: Was it challenging to write a research paper with dyslexia?
Horner: I had written a lot of papers while I was in school, and I did really poorly. But one of my teachers told me, “As long as the science was good, somebody would always help me with it.” I found that was true. When I submitted my paper to Nature, it was not very pretty, but on the other hand, the science was really good.
The editors there helped me out, and I had some people at Princeton who helped as well, before I even got it submitted.
When I published that paper, Princeton promoted me to research scientist. I couldn’t have students, but I was able to write grants, and so I wrote a couple of NSF [National Science Foundation] grants that I got. A couple of years later, Montana State University was looking for a curator, and since I was at that level, I got that job in 1982.
But since I didn’t have a Ph.D., they wouldn’t let me have students, they wouldn’t let me teach classes. But four years later, they did.
Live Science: Why did they change their minds?
Horner: I got a MacArthur Fellowship. After that they let me be a professor and teach classes and have graduate students, including Ph.D. students.
Live Science: You famously found evidence in 1978 that dinosaurs were social animals that cared for their young. What was the evidence?
Horner: That was the first discovery. They were 15 baby dinosaurs in a nest and they were twice as big as they would have been when they hatched. So, they stayed in their nests while they at least doubled in size.
We find nesting grounds all over the world now and the nests are close together, so it suggests they were colonial nesters.
We also find lots of evidence that they traveled in herds, because we find these massive, monolithic dung beds.
[Horner has also found that baby dinosaurs look different from adult dinosaurs, a view contrary to that held by some other scientists who say that these specimens are a different species altogether. For instance, there is debate over whether Nanotyrannus is a unique species or simply a young Tyrannosaurus rex.] [In Photos: Montana’s Dueling Dinosaur Fossils]
Live Science: You’re also pretty hands-on with fossils, cutting them apart sometimes. Was that a new technique at the time?
Horner: People have been looking at the internal structure of dinosaurs for a long time. But basically they would ask a museum for extra dinosaur parts, like broken pieces. And so, they weren’t getting very good samples.
I realized that most of the information about the growth of the dinosaurs was on the insides of their bones. Starting in the 1980s, we began to disassemble the bones, and take a mold and cast of them. Then you still have the original morphology — you can still study the body.
But then you can take the piece you took out and cut it, slice it up, and you have the entire circumference [to look at the dinosaur’s growth rings, which look like a tree’s rings]. That’s how we now determine the age of dinosaurs, their rate of growth and their physiology.
We started doing that with leg bones, and now we can do it with skulls. For a long time, people thought it was destructive paleontology. But it’s not destructive if you mold it, and cast it, and put a cast back in so that the morphology is still there.