In Jurassic World, splice-happy geneticists create a 40-foot-long new species of dinosaur dubbed the Indominus Rex, a T. rex hybrid designed to yield the most frighteningly dino-riffic theme park attraction of all time.
In real life, scientists are working to create a dinosaur whose existence will prove more significant—and more terrifying, at least to creationists—than the fictional Indominus Rex. And according to Jurassic Park’s resident celebrity paleontologist Jack Horner, they’re already halfway there.
Hold onto your butts: Here comes the dino chicken.
Horner, 68, has served as a consultant on every Jurassic Park film since schooling Steven Spielberg on Velociraptors 22 years ago. Unfortunately, it’s been nearly impossible to make new dinos out of old amber-preserved DNA the Jurassic Park way, although a recent discovery in London may prove otherwise.
Now that scientists agree on the evolutionary lineage between modern birds and ancient dinosaurs, they’ve taken a more realistic approach to cooking up real live dinosaurs.
“Birds are dinosaurs,” Horner told The Daily Beast on a recent afternoon in L.A.’s Natural History Museum. “Adding a tail or changing wings to hands and arms, giving it teeth, giving it a snout like a Tyrannosaur… makes it more dinosaur-looking, but it’s still the dinosaur bird that it was when it started.”
Domesticated chickens won the experimental science lottery, and so Horner’s current passion project aims to switch specific genes within a chicken “on” and “off” to trigger the ancestral form within.
“This science, the science of hybridization or transgenic engineering, is more plausible than bringing dinosaurs back from the past,” said Horner, perched beneath the 34-foot-tall fossilized frame of Thomas the T. rex. “Jurassic World is more plausible than the first movie.”
“We look at it as four stages that we have to go through: The tail, the hands, the teeth, and the beak,” he explained. “We have two of them so far. We have the beak, and we have teeth. We can change the mouth of a bird, and we can put teeth in it. So we’re fifty percent of the way!”
Horner holds posts as a professor at Montana State University and curator of paleontology at The Museum of the Rockies (“I have more dinosaurs than this,” he notes, gesturing around at the 14,000 square foot Dinosaur Hall). He and his dino-chicken went viral after a 2011 TED Talk, and George Lucas, with whom he worked on Jurassic Park, helped fund the $5 million effort.
His work has garnered him acclaim, and enemies; creationists have had Horner in their sights for years because of the ramifications of his work, “because we have proof of concept.”
“They’re already in a tizzy. We put teeth in a bird without adding anything to it. We just flipped a switch, and there it was,” said Horner, who made headlines in anti-evolutionist media when a Denver-based radio personality offered him $10,000 to conduct a scientifically dubious carbon test of T. rex fossils. “They’re pretty underhanded.”
So close are Horner and his peers to cracking the Chickenosaurus, last year Horner predicted we’d see one within a decade. But the dino-chicken team is currently laboring over the Chickenosaurus’s tail, which Horner calls “the hardest part of all.”
After they crack the tail, they’ll still have to make wings into claws. And a dino-chicken tail breakthrough will in itself have crucial medical implications for treatment of genetic spinal disease.
“Once we can make vertebrae, its got application to the medical field and all sorts of things,” said Horner. “It’s not just fun.”
It’s clearly still a lot of fun for Horner, who as a child wished for a pet dinosaur. If and when the dino-chicken comes into being, as he predicts, what will he do with it? “I’m going to take it everywhere I go,” he chuckles. “Put a little leash on it and walk around.”
Horner was joking, but he’s also prepared to answer the ethical questions InGen’s scientists and suits skirt time and time again in the Jurassic Park films. In movies, out of control geneticists are accused of playing God; off-screen, they’re making glow in the dark bunnies in the name of progress.
“Ethics is a person’s preference,” Horner said. “Recently, I was in London and somebody said, ‘Where do you draw the line?’ I don’t draw lines. Did someone draw a line before they made a Chihuahua? If you don’t think we should have a particular kind of animal, you know, that’s your preference. But somebody else might want it. So who gets to decide what we have and what we don’t?”
“I think science should not be limited by anything,” he continued, sounding a little more John Hammond than Alan Grant. “And I say this even in the worst circumstances. Like using some kind of wild disease as a weapon. If we don’t know what people could possibly do, we can’t do anything about it if it happens. In science, we need to discover everything that there is that’s discoverable.”
In Jurassic World, Chris Pratt’s rugged combat veteran faces a personal and professional dilemma when the pack of Velociraptors he trained from birth are commandeered by a military contractor who wants to weaponize them for battle. Talking ethics in dino science, Horner seemed to compare his Chickenosaurus work to the development of biological weapons as essential if unforeseeable leaps in the name of progress.
“If our country said, ‘We’re going to put limits on this… we don’t want anything getting out of control,’ some other country, or somebody else in another place, might say, ‘Well, that gives us an opportunity. We will make something that these other people can’t defend,’” he said. “Then that’s the end of us.”
It’s unlikely that most Jurassic World moviegoers will have such matters on the brain as they leave the multiplex (although writer-director Colin Trevorrow might hope otherwise). I asked Horner the question every Jurassic Park fan wants answered: Could you really train a Velociraptor to take orders?
“We train birds to hunt,” he said, without hesitation. “What’s the difference? I don’t think there is a difference! But you know, dinosaurs in a movie are more vicious than dinosaurs would have been in real life. Compare mammals to birds; a lion or a wolf or a dog is vicious, and can even look vicious. But have you ever seen a vicious eagle? Dinosaurs, I think, would look regal.”