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Jack Horner on Creating a Genetically Modified Dinosaur for Jurassic World

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Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

Paleontologist Jack Horner has been an advisor on the Jurassic Park franchise since the beginning. But the filmmakers behind Jurassic World asked him to do something he’d never done before: create a genetically modified dinosaur. If you thought regular dinosaurs were scary, wait till you get a look at Indominus Rex. mental_floss spoke with Horner about creating Indominus Rex, incorporating new dinosaur findings into the movie, and having a pet raptor for the office.

WARNING: Spoilers for Jurassic World below! Read at your own risk.

Jurassic Park inspired you to make a dino-chicken, and now the people behind Jurassic World have asked you to genetically build a hybrid dinosaur. What did that feel like?

It was pretty cool. Probably the coolest thing of all is the whole notion of the hybrid and the transgenic engineering that we hypothesize goes on to make Indominus, and it’s all very plausible science.

When I was watching the movie, I was thinking, “People are probably going to think all the genetic tinkering is science fiction!” But in reality, we’re doing this kind of thing pretty often.

That’s right. It is actually the most plausible idea in the whole franchise. It’s the kind of thing that we can do these days. If we could bring dinosaurs back from the past—and I mean the way Jurassic Park did it—we actually would be able to probably make hybrid dinosaurs and transgenically make them do other sorts of things. So as weird as it is, it’s plausible.

When you and the filmmakers were coming up with Indominus Rex, what sorts of dinosaurs were you looking at for its physical characteristics?

Therizinosaurus is where we started because it has great, big claws and big arms. It’s sort of the opposite of a T. Rex—rather than having short little arms, it’s got these monstrous arms. 

Indominus Rex has some tricks up its sleeves, thanks to the DNA from other animals spliced in there. What did you want the dinosaur to be able to do?

Well, I have, for years, wanted to get camouflage on a dinosaur. The cuttlefish is what we use for their camouflage—they're just the best camouflagers ever. So our dinosaur has that capability. I would like to have had a dinosaur that camouflaged itself so well that it wouldn’t even have to run after anything. It would just wait until something came up to it and eat it. But we have to have them running in a Jurassic Park movie.

The dinosaur can also control its body temperature, which it gets from tree frog DNA. Where did that idea come from?

That was another characteristic that was added. I think [director Colin Trevorrow] added that one. Basically, I told Colin he could use any characteristic he could think of that came from any animal we have alive today. So that’s a pretty open list. He could have had an electrified one!

Maybe for the sequel! How did the process of creating Indominus Rex, visually, work? Were you sketching it out?

It was just back and forth on the computer. They would send me drawings of an animal, and I would critique it and get back to them and tell them what they couldn’t do and things that could be exaggerated and so on.

I really wanted Indominus Rex to have some accoutrements—you know, some spikes and plates and all sorts of gizmos sticking out of its head—and it’s got some spiky looking things on top of its head. I would have made that a little more elaborate than it is. They were pretty conservative.

There’s so much being discovered in paleontology all the time. Was there anything that’s happened in the last few years that you especially wanted the filmmakers to know about when they were making the movie?

One thing is, dinosaur heads changed shape as they grew up, and so we wanted to make sure that the horns on the little baby triceratops in the movie were shaped differently than the adult. We know that juvenile triceratops’ horns actually arc up and curve backward, and they stay that way until they begin to reach sexual maturity, and then they grow forward. So we got that in there.

I was talking to the people at ILM [the special effects company Industrial Light & Magic]. Glen McIntosh, the head of the team, he and I had a lot of conversations. I kept stressing that we needed to make sure that these dinosaurs were very birdlike, not lizard-like, and that definitely comes across in this movie.

The thing is, the four movies that have been made are one story—we can’t really change dinosaurs according to new discoveries. So the dinosaurs that we created in the first one are the ones that we see wandering around in Jurassic World. There really wasn’t much that I had to advise on as far as ones we’ve already done; most of my advising was on our brand-new one.

The idea that you could train the raptors is pretty interesting. When that clip of Chris Pratt on the motorcycle with the raptors running around him first came out, people said it was ridiculous. But if you’re taking into consideration that, in the movie universe, they’re very intelligent, then why wouldn’t you be able to train them?

You can train raptor birds, right? Birds are their descendants, and birds are trainable. There’s nothing implausible about that at all.

Recently, some scientists reverted a bird beak back to an earlier state, so it resembled a dinosaur snout. It's not quite your dino-chicken, but it’s closer than anything that’s been done before. What do you make of that research?

The beak is great. It’s fantastic. That’s one characteristic; my lab is working on the tail.

You know, it doesn’t matter who does this. The idea is out there, and I’m happy that people are working on it. I hope one of these days real soon we get a tail and put a tail on a bird, and transform the wing back to arms and hands. You know, I don’t see this being very far away now.

Will this all lead to a mini-Jurassic Park?

Jurassic Park makes us think that we have to put them in parks, and there’s no reason. We’ve been breeding wolves for a long time, and we make Chihuahuas and we keep them at home. So there is no reason to think we have to keep these things in parks.

We were talking about this in the office the other day. We thought it would be fun to have a little office raptor!

Exactly. Why not? If you’re going to have an office Chihuahua, why not have an office raptor?

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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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iStock

In the early 2000s, a team of paleontologists inadvertently set the stage for a years-long scientific saga after they excavated a well-preserved partial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana's Hell Creek formation. While transporting the bones, the scientists were forced to break a femur. Pieces from inside the thigh bone fell out, and these fragments were sent to Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University, for dissection and analysis.

Under a microscope, Schweitzer thought she could make out what appeared to be cells and tiny blood vessels inside the pieces, similar to those commonly discovered inside fresh bone. Further analysis revealed what appeared to be animal proteins, which sent Schweitzer reeling. Could she have just discovered soft tissue inside dinosaur leg bone many millions of years old, found in ancient sediments laid down during the Cretaceous period? Or was the soft stuff simply a substance known as biofilm, which would have been formed by microbes after the bone had already fossilized?

Following a seemingly endless series of debates, studies, and papers, Schweitzer's hunch was proven correct. That said, this contentious conclusion wasn't made overnight. To hear the whole saga—and learn what it means for science—watch the recent episode of Stated Clearly below, which was first spotted by website Earth Archives.

[h/t Earth Archives]

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Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum). These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]

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