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Paleontologist Jack Horner Answers Your Questions 36

A few weeks ago you had the chance to ask Jack Horner about dinosaurs, science funding, and extinction level events. He's sent back his responses and commented: "Very impressive audience you have!" Read below for more flattery and his answers to your questions.
comments about the movie Jurassic Park?
by peter303

The 20th anniversary enhanced version will return to theaters in a few weeks. Supposedly Crichton modeled the Sam Neill character partly after you. What positive and negative things did this movie do for dinosaur paleontology? I would have thought it got a few more children interested in the subject.

Horner: I don't really know of anything negative the movie did, but yes, it certainly got more people interested in dinosaurs. Especially students who wanted to become paleontologists. I went from having 3 graduate students before the movie to 18 after it came out!!

Your degree
by onyxruby

You're famous for not having earned your degree, yet you persevered and your reputation for your work goes far outside your field. How hard was it to be taken seriously in your field without the required degree? I ask as someone who also works in a University at a senior level without a degree.

Horner: It took a while to show people that I had the education, just not the paper degree. I would say that was all there was to it except that when I first arrived here at MSU, there were several things I was not allowed to do including writing federal grants, teaching classes and advising graduate students. All were allowed after a few years, but some of that might have been on account of me getting a MacArthur Fellowship.

The Evolution of Paleontology
by eldavojohn

Something that's always made me curious about Paleontology is how far the study has come. If we look back historically at how dinosaur bones were exhumed and treated, some of the methods were actually a little bit destructive. So I've always wondered how paleontologists today cope with the fact that 100 years in the future we will likely have technology beyond our wildest dreams that will be able to scan the ground and find fossils in their original preserved intact positions and when they are excavated the process will surely be much more refined and exact measurements will be taken to better understand dinosaurs. I'm sure preservation techniques and materials science will allow us to even better handle finds. How do you cope with this idea that hundreds of years from now your efforts might be seen as crude or arcane? Do you ever wish that some paleontologists of the past had just left the specimens lying there for a future paleontologist to properly handle? Or do you just see this as a necessary way to move forward? Building on that, is there an end-game for paleontologists where the entire Earth has been inspected/surveyed and how many years out is that (I understand that sensor technology would have to come a very long way)?

Horner: Let me answer that question by stating that most really famous dinosaur collections from the early days in famous museums such as the Yale Peabody, the American Museum, the Smithsonian, and so on are virtually useless even for our questions today. Without the precise location, both geographically and stratigraphically (geologically), let alone taphonomically (the kind of sediments it resided in), there is really no data to allow paleobiological questions to be answered accurately. I think most of those old specimens should be packed up and put in storage, and new specimens with good data should be collected to fill those museums. As for the future, I think we are working as if we are already there if we do collect all the data I refer to as a specimens unified frames of reference in time (UFR), which means geographic stratigraphic, taphonomic, phylogenetic and ontogenetic (growth stage). Any less information is simply inadequate for paleobiological studies. As for the future, yes, we may well get new kinds of equipment to find specimens easier, but we will still need the UFR information. As for preparation, CT scanners will be useful so that we wont have to risk damage by physical preparation, but this technology is useful even now, so it will undoubtedly just get better.

How will science be funded in the US next?
by damn_registrars

For a long time the primary source of money for scientific research has been the federal granting agencies (NIH, NSF, DOE in particular). All three of them are facing either budget cuts, budget stalls, or increases in their budgets that do not match inflation. This does not seem to fare well for new scientists or established ones who are looking to further their careers. Where do you see research money coming from next? Alternately, are we looking ahead to a time where fewer people will be doing science because the funding just won't exist to pay even their meager wages any more?

Horner: Like most researchers in the early part of their careers, I relied on writing grants to NSF, but as these government agencies became more stringent and stingy with funding for dinosaurs and other purely scientific endeavors, I moved away from government funding to private funding, and I think this is where most all research funds for dinosaurs will eventually come from. Private people who have the financial where-with-all and interest in the field currently fund most of the dinosaur collecting, research and exhibitions in the United States. It is up to us paleontologists to make sure we engage the public in all venues, and keep their interest high, if we expect to continue these kinds of studies. The government is much more interested in practical sciences (renewable energy, climate change, medical) these days, a trend I would expect to continue for quite some time.

Which one is your favorite?
by nherm

Which is your favorite dinosaur, and why?

Horner: I am very partial to Maiasaura, a dinosaur my friend Bob Makela and I named back in 1979. It was one of the first dinosaurs to reveal social behaviors, and thus help change the public's view of dinosaurs as social creatures, and not the big lumbering, green, cold blooded monsters of old movies.

Undig-scovered country?
by Anonymous Coward

What , if any, locations on Earth would you like to see a dig start up ? Are there places you cannot dig , for physical or political reasons that you are fairly sure are rich sites?

Horner: I have worked all over the world, and although there are some interesting areas, some of which I'm sure will eventually yield new species or new biological data, I am convinced that the best information we can get is right here in Montana and Alberta, where we have access to great quantities of specimens of particular species. There are many paleontologists who are looking for new species, and I think that is good, and it will help fill in the dinosaur family tree, but this is not my interest. My interests are in acquiring as many specimens of specific species as possible so we can do population studies, and understand their growth and behaviors and ecologies. I am currently amassing quantities of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus, and we have enormous collections of Maiasaura and Hypacrosaurus from embryos to adults, so we know more about these dinosaurs than we know of most any other fossil vertebrate animal.

How many more dinosaurs to discover?
by bill_mcgonigle

This one is from my 6-year-old boy, Will. We're currently reading a book about dinosaurs (he gets three per bedtime). He wants to know, "how many dinosaurs haven't been discovered yet?" One of his favorites is one that was discovered in China fairly recently (many of the famous ones seem to come from the US midwest from the early part of last century). While his question is impossible to answer on its own, do paleontologists have a sense of whether the types of soils likely to hold fossils have been well explored, or if we've merely scratched the surface [sic] of what's to come?

Horner: My colleague Peter Dodson at Penn has estimated that we name a new dinosaur every 7 weeks or so, suggesting that we have many more to find than we have found to date, although I do think many more are named than should be on account of some being unrecognized juveniles of already named species. But, yes, there are many, many places that will yield dinosaur specimens that haven't even been explored! When your 6 year-old is my age there will still be plenty of dinosaurs to be discovered.

Paleocene dinosaurs
by niado

So, first of all this is hands-down the best Slashdot interview ever! On to my actual question: what do you think about the possible existence of Paleocene dinosaurs? I understand that any current fossil evidence for their existence is likely caused by reworked fossils. How likely do you believe it is that a particular dinosaur taxon survived a few million years after the extinction event, and what would be the implications of this occurring?

Horner: Yes, I think that a good argument can be made to the effect that every so called Paleocene specimen that has been reported has been reworked from older Mesozoic sediments, but I personally have no problem with Paleocene dinosaurs, and am amazed that we haven't found any as yet. I really don't care what killed the dinosaurs, so don't have a dog in the fight so to speak, but none of the extinction scenarios really work for me. The meteor theory certainly seems to be a good one, yet we have very good evidence that there was a decline in species prior to that event, so its puzzling. The lack of Paleocene dinosaurs is equally puzzling as one would think that regardless of the event, it couldn't possibly have gotten all of them when their descendants the birds made it through. So, as many people now days think, since birds are in fact dinosaurs, we do have Paleocene dinosaurs, and no need for a discussion.

Things That We Don't Even Know We Don't Know?
by eldavojohn

In science (even computer science) I have a lot of interest in what we know we don't know and what we don't know we don't know. With paleontology and it's subdomains -- specifically your specialty of dinosaur growth -- how do you deal with what must be an unbound realm of what we don't know we don't know? For example, isn't it possible that growth was regulated completely differently in dinosaurs than it is in modern day lizards and birds? Couldn't modern day hormones and endocrine system be much different than what was present in dinosaurs? When you publish research is it all based on assumptions? How do you overcome such an open system of possibilities?

Horner: Yes, it is true, that there may very well be unknown possibilities, but if we are to learn anything, we have to have a process of learning that is consistent, and that is science. Science is the process of observation or data gathering, followed by the formulation of hypotheses that are testable, in other words either repeatable or falsifiable. As we cannot repeat the evolution of dinosaurs we have to formulate falsifiable hypotheses. We also rely on related species to reveal characteristics. For example, when we study dinosaur growth we make comparisons with living taxa that we know to be most closely related, and these are crocodilians and birds. But, crocs and birds do grow differently, and in fact crocs are ectotherms while birds are endotherms, so their physiologies are different. In an attempt to discover the physiology of a dinosaur we compare the parts we have to compare which is only the skeleton. We cut the bones open to reveal microscopic features that we know to be produced by one physiology or another. Dinosaur baby bones are histologically identical to those of birds, and extremely different from those of crocs, so our hypothesis is that the physiology of dinosaurs (and concurrently their growth) was closest to birds, but that doesn't mean it was exactly the same. Using bone structures to construct the hypothesis, it is testable, and possibly falsified by finding a living animal that has bone tissues identical to birds and dinosaurs, and is an ectotherm. If you believe in the notion that everything could have been different in the past, you run the risk of never knowing anything in the present!

K-T Extinction Event
by niado

So, let's pretend the K-T event never happened and dinosaurs survived into the Holocene. What do you think the world's fauna would be like now? How would dinosaur evolution have progressed? Assuming humans had still come onto the scene (because it would be so cool) would we have driven the dinosaurs to extinction by now?

Horner: Yes, I'm sure humans would have driven dinosaurs to extinction had they evolved, but mammal evolution seems very much tied to the extinction of dinosaurs, so I would speculate that mammals would have remained insignificant compared to dinosaurs and their descendants the birds. I think mammals would have occupied the nocturnal world whereas dinosaurs and birds would have occupied the diurnal world. Early primates would have been gobbled up long before they had a chance to evolve the capacity to cause an extinction!!! : )

The market for fossils
by Swisslemur

I hope this comment isn't out of place, but I was wondering on what your opinion is of the market for fossils? It has become so easy to buy and sell fossils - eBay and the Internet - I was wondering if you see this as a threat to palaeontology? I think a lot of people collect fossils as a hobby or as a tangible way to forge a connection with science, so it can generate a lot of interest - which must be a good thing. However, is there a danger when auction houses market fossils as art or decoration, or perhaps investment items? I think there a potential for a lot of parallels with the market for antiquities which has caused a great deal of grief for archaeologists. Has the market got anything to offer palaeontolgy?

Horner: Unfortunately, the fossil trade is primarily a bunch of people who simply want to make money, so data, the information that comes with a specimen, is not generally retrieved, and the specimens are therefore useless to science. Amateur paleontologists or concerned landowners who are actively collecting to help science, donate important specimens or guide paleontologists to particular sites so the specimens and their data can be retrieved. In my opinion, any museum that buys vertebrate fossils that do not have associated data with them are not science museums, but rather show cases to show off pretty trinkets. Most scientific museums do not buy or sell fossils under any circumstance. For the most part, the current fossil market, particularly the eBay market and such, has nothing to offer paleontology.

by eternaldoctorwho

Dr. Horner, you have inspired me to engage in the sciences ever since I was a little kid. Although I didn't go into the field of paleontology, I did study computer science and became a software developer for an education company. In my field, we are always trying to find ways to engage kids in the STEM fields to help develop the next generation of engineers, programmers, biologists, and even paleontologists. In your opinion, how do you see the future of your field within the next generation of scientists, and what steps should we take to help kids become more interested in the sciences?

Horner: I personally think that paleontology is a field that needs revitalization, and one way to do this is to incorporate other fields of science. Paleontology reveals evolution and therefore gives us an historic record of our biological past. But, in order to actually understand how these evolutionary changes took place we can incorporate developmental biology and make attempts to retro-engineer some extinct characteristics. This is the aim of our Chickenosaurus Project, in which I'm hoping to create a dinosaur like animal from a bird (chicken). Integrating paleontology with evolutionary developmental biology has very interesting potential, both in pure science and in practical science. I am now encouraging kids to learn more about developmental biology and genetics if they are interested in paleontology.
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Paleontologist Jack Horner Answers Your Questions

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