Jack Horner found his very first dinosaur bone when he was just eight years old – and his first skeleton at 13. Sixty years later, the veteran palaeontologist who advised Steven Spielberg on the three Jurassic Park films, and was the partial inspiration for Dr Alan Grant played in the films by Sam Neill, has lost none of his boyhood fascination with the great lumbering beasts of prehistory.
In between his research on fossils at the University of Montana, and his ambitious if madcap scheme to turn a chicken into a living dinosaur, Horner has found time once again to act as scientific adviser on the latest Spielberg-produced epic, Jurassic World.
Horner, a big, rugged man, is used to scouring Montana for fossils. Indeed, the collection he curates includes more T rex skeletons than any other museum in the world. Not surprising then that he won acclaim for bringing some credibility to the hit franchise. But he admits there were times when Spielberg stretched the science for the sake of the story.
“Steven and I, when we were working on the original movie, had a lot of discussions about what is and what isn’t. As long as I had really good evidence for something, he would go with it. But if we didn’t know for sure, then he would take his liberties – which was fine, I mean it is fiction,” Horner says.
“He made them go faster than they would normally go, and do things they wouldn’t normally be able to do. The tyrannosaurs, for instance, pick up people – there is no way they could, but it makes for a good movie.”
In Jurassic World, out in cinemas on Friday 12 June, the director Colin Trevorrow apparently takes even greater liberties. This has led some dinosaur experts to criticise the film as “just another monster movie”. One particular annoyance was that no attempt has been made to give the predatory velociraptors a covering of colourful feathers – a discovery that has emerged since the original Jurassic Park (on ITV this Sunday)
Horner accepts that some dinosaurs were indeed feathery but defends the decision to ignore this fact on the grounds of continuity. “It was definitely a conscious decision because we needed to keep the consistency of how the dinosaurs looked across all the movies, even though we now know they would have been feathery, at least the velociraptors,” he says.
“I want to be entertained as well. That’s what I keep reminding my colleagues. If we had made a documentary, no one would have gone to see it. Most of the people who get upset about certain things… well, I guess they just don’t go to movies.”
It has been almost 15 years since the last Jurassic Park, so what was it like to work on a new film after such a long break? “When I went to the set I was shocked. I didn’t recognise any of the stuff. We had gone from analogue to digital and I was amazed at how much was different.”
“With the other films I was closely tied to the director, but this time I didn’t spend a lot of time with Colin. It was a whole different animal. On the previous movies I was always on set when they had animatronics there but they didn’t have them this time because all the dinosaurs are computer-generated. And, boy, did they have some fancy green screens”, he says in his soft Montana drawl.
But one thing we can expect is a lot of genetic engineering. “The basic premise of a Jurassic Park movie is that dinosaurs chase people and eat them. So that is going to be the same,” Horner says. “I think people will find it interesting in terms of the hybrids. The premise here is that the park has been open now for ten years orexso, and people have got kind of bored looking at the same dinosaurs over and over again, so the park managers have decided to make hybrid ones – it’s a sort of Frankenstein movie. If you make something new, it usually eats you.”
Which brings us to his pet project. Ten years ago, when the idea of a Jurassic Park 4 first began to circulate, Horner had the idea of writing a book on “how to make a dinosaur” by genetically engineering the DNA of a chicken, its closest living relative. Now he has a real project, part-financed by George Lucas, to do just that, by finding and commandeering the genetic pathways that grow the length of a chicken’s tail or transform its wings into arms.
“We know that birds are descendants of dinosaurs, so birds actually carry dinosaur DNA and all we have to do is find the genetic pathways that changed primitive birds, which are very dinosaur-like, into modern birds – and then see if we can reverse that whole process.”
He reckons the idea could take off, despite ethical concerns over tinkering with the genetics of living creatures – something he simply compares to the selective breeding of dogs. “You could just as well question the validity of making a chihuahua from a wolf.”
There are potential medical spin-offs from understanding the genetics of turning a chicken into a dinosaur, he points out, but admits that’s not the sole justification. “It’s a fun project in itself – and I can’t think of very many sixth graders who wouldn’t want a little pet dinosaur.”
Steve Connor is science editor of The Independent and the i newspaper