Paleontologist Jack Horner's 80-Million-Year-Old Eggs Help Unscramble the History of Dinosaurs

updated 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There's an incomparable rush that comes from finding dinosaur bones," says Jack Horner. "You know you're the first person to lay hands on a critter that lived 80 or 90 million years ago."

Horner, a 38-year-old paleontologist, knows that rush well. For the past six summers he and a crew of volunteers have been excavating a Montana site that is the final resting place of scores of dinosaurs killed by a lava flow 85 million years ago. In sections nicknamed Bone Bed and Egg Mountain, Horner's teams have unearthed hundreds of fossilized bones as well as the first dinosaur eggs ever found in the Western Hemisphere. Altogether his teams have found more than 300 eggs.

But it's ideas—not just fossils—that Horner is after. When he discovered 15 tiny skeletons in an area of fewer than 10 square feet, Horner realized he had stumbled upon a paleontological first—a nest of baby dinosaurs. That and other discoveries have led him to hypothesize that dinosaurs lavished extended parental care on their young instead of merely depositing them in the world, as many scientists believe. Since such nurturing is more compatible with a warm-blooded makeup, Horner has called into question the long-held belief that dinos were cold-blooded. His work has also necessitated many revisions, large and small, in the way dinosaurs are depicted in books and even in science museums. He's particularly peeved by the way the animals are presented in children's books. "Children have a great urge to learn about dinosaurs," says Horner. "Yet all these people are feeding kids rubbish that's 60 years out of date."

His finds, and his articles published in Scientific American and other journals, have combined to make him highly respected and equally controversial. Says Edwin Colbert, a dinosaur specialist at the Museum of Northern Arizona: "Horner is apt to take a position a little early. But he is a brilliant paleontologist with a brilliant future."

Horner prefers to think of himself as driven—and lucky. He was lucky, he says, to have grown up in dinosaur-rich Montana, where his father, ironically, was in the gravel business. A science whiz in high school, he "hated the other stuff, which seemed to have no relevance to my life." He spent seven years at the University of Montana—interrupted by a stint in Vietnam—before he finally flunked out because he couldn't stand taking nonscience courses. Undiscouraged, he landed a job as a research assistant at Princeton University's museum. "I would have been a janitor if I'd had to," he says. He spent summers prospecting in Montana, and in 1982 moved to Bozeman, where he became paleontology curator of Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies, home to many of his finds. "A lot of Montanans are teed off that local finds usually end up in New York," he says.

Horner, who is divorced, works the dig each summer with his son, Jason, 10, Bob Makela, an old friend who is now a high school science teacher, and a squad of volunteers. This year's recruits include a magician, a woman bodybuilder and a housewife. Horner receives as many as 300 applications each year for the 15 spots. "The first batch," he says, "I usually throw in the trash. If they try a second time, I figure they're serious. Then I give them a two-week trial and if they don't work out, I give them a Greyhound ticket back to where they came from." Horner's lucky streak seems to be holding. A month ago he came across the first complete skeleton of a juvenile Leptoceratops, a horned dinosaur that lived 90 million years ago. It's just the sort of jackpot, says Horner, that keeps him digging. "I couldn't be lured away from here by any amount of money or promised notoriety," says Horner. "I like where I live and what I'm doing. It's my driver, the whole thing for me."

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