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Alex J. Berliner/ABImages
Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

Jack Horner on Creating a Genetically Modified Dinosaur for Jurassic World

Alex J. Berliner/ABImages
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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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic
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Imagine a world in which eagle-sized dragonflies buzzed through the air and millipedes as long as kayaks scuttled across Earth. "Ick"-factor aside for bug haters, these creatures aren't the product of a Michael Crichton fever dream. In fact, they actually existed around 300 million years ago, as MinuteEarth host Kate Yoshida explains.

How did the prehistoric ancestors of today’s itty-bitty insects get so huge? Oxygen, and lots of it. Bugs "breathe by sponging up air through their exoskeletons, and the available oxygen can only diffuse so far before getting used up," Yoshida explains. And when an atmospheric spike in the colorless gas occurred, this allowed the critters' bodies to expand to unprecedented dimensions and weights.

But that's just one of the clever adaptations that allowed some creatures to grow enormous. Learn more about these adaptations—including the ingenious evolutionary development that helped the biggest dinosaurs to haul their cumbersome bodies around, and the pair of features that boosted blue whales to triple their size, becoming the largest animals ever on Earth—by watching MinuteEarth's video below.

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