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Jack Horner knows his dinosaurs

By Peggy Mihelich
CNN
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BOZEMAN, Montana (CNN) -- From the time he was a kid digging holes in his backyard, paleontologist John "Jack" Horner knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

"I found my first dinosaur bone when I was 6, growing up in Montana. Ever since then I've been interested in dinosaurs," Horner wrote in his 1993 book "The Complete T-Rex."

As the curator of the Museum of the Rockies for the past 24 years, he has collected an array of dinosaur fossils from many digs in a desolate region known as the Hell Creek Formation in eastern Montana's Badlands. (Watch as Horner explains Montana's dinosaur connection -- :42)

His research has made him a well-known paleontologist, and he's considered a model for the lead character in the blockbuster "Jurassic Park" films, on which he also was a consultant.

"The dinosaurs that we have in here include the ones that are 65 to 68 million years old," Horner said in a recent interview at the museum. They include famous giants of the Cretaceous Period, including Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex, armored Ankylosaurus, and others. "We have the largest collection of Triceratops in the world here. We also have the largest collection of T-rex in the world here."

He was the first to find dinosaur embryos. Horner found the 75 million-year-old fossilized baby skeletons in Egg Mountain, Montana, in the remains of dinosaur nests.

"That was pretty cool.... little eggs full of babies," he said.

Horner is perhaps most famous for his 1978 discovery of the dinosaur he named Maiasaura, which roamed what is now Montana at the end of the Cretaceous Period, about 77 million years ago.

The large, duck-billed plant-eater is known to kids and other dinosaur fans around the world as proof that dinosaurs raised their young because Horner's find included nests with remains of eggshells and hatchlings. The name means "good mother lizard."

He is a tall, craggy, bearded man with a grandfatherly demeanor. With his trademark wide-brimmed straw hat, he looks the part of the quintessential paleontologist as he scours the Hell Creek with his team.

Horner's key interest is dinosaur growth and behavior.

"We have a life history of Triceratops. We are interested in T-rex and duck-billed dinosaurs. Life histories tell you just about everything you need to know about an animal."

Years of research led Horner to believe that T-rex was a scavenger and not a predator. (Watch Horner's take on T-rex -- 3:00)

And so it's not surprising director Steven Spielberg came knocking on his door to work on all three "Jurassic Park" movies.

" In our imaginations they really do become the surrogate monsters for us." - Jack Horner, paleontologist

"My job was to make sure sixth-graders didn't send Steven nasty letters, and to make sure the actors pronounced their words right. But also to make sure the dinosaurs looked good."

And how did he feel about Hollywood's portrayal?

"Well, I think any dinosaur, including all those Velociraptors, would have gone and eaten that Triceratops before they would have tried to break into a building to eat children."

But dinosaur movies raise the profile of what he does and get adults interested. And that's great, said Horner.

'J REX'

Horner says he likes all dinosaurs, and doesn't have a favorite but seems to have a soft spot for duck-billed dinosaurs, for his first fossil find as a boy, and for T-rex. The license plate on his pickup truck reads "J REX."

"I love looking for them [dinosaurs]. I love finding them. I like writing about them. I like teaching. I like all of it." Except the business end, he said, which he gladly leaves to a partner. "I think that's awful. That's work, this is play."

The Museum of the Rockies has 12 T-rex specimens, including one of only two complete specimens ever found. Horner helped dig up the beast in eastern Montana's Badlands in 1990. He had it molded and cast in bronze and put on display outside the museum entrance.

The museum might as well serve as the paleontologist's second home; the dinosaurs -- his children, the visitors -- welcome guests. He walks the "Hall of Horns and Teeth" answering questions from young and old alike. Those he stops to chat with are impressed by his grasp of the subject and easygoing nature.

But it's with the children that Horner really connects: Kids love dinosaurs, he loves dinosaurs.

"Kids like dinosaurs all the time. ... They [dinosaurs] are really different than any animal that is alive today. And they're gone, extinct. And that means we have to really use our imagination to think about them. In our imaginations they really do become the surrogate monsters for us. And they really lived, which is even better than our mythical monsters."


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Horner with two of 12 T-rex specimens at the Museum of the Rockies, in Bozeman, Montana.

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