Jack Horner

T-Rex Cliffhanger Revolutionizes Paleontology

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 2000

Though he lacks academic credentials, Jack Horner has revolutionized paleontology with the help of a gaggle of independent-minded donors. After flunking out of college seven times then serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, Horner sweet-talked his way into a technician’s job at a natural history museum. He soon began a string of spectacular finds in dinosaur fossil beds that eventually propelled him to leadership of America’s most productive dinosaur research program. Along the way, his work has been powered by about $12 million of private donations from enthusiastic givers who were not bothered by Horner’s unconventional path into his field.

One highlight came in 2000, when one of Horner’s crews discovered a T. Rex footbone jutting from the steep face of a cliff. Soon an epic excavation was under way, quickly funded by Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold. Once the remarkably intact specimen had been hacked out and encased in a plaster jacket, the only way to carry it off from the cliff was with a helicopter. Enter improvising donor number two: philanthropist and pilot Terry Kohler, who lent his whirlybird, flew it himself, and gave Horner hundreds of thousands of dollars to analyze his fossils.

To pull off the air-evacuation of the 3,000-pound specimen it had been necessary to break one of the creature’s massive femurs. Horner used this “problem” as an opportunity and asked one of his students to study the inside of the bone. Shockingly, she found the remains of soft tissue preserved inside the 68-million-year-old fossil—revealing blood vessels and bone matrix reminiscent of what is found in an ostrich, and suggesting the T. Rex was a female.

Horner reports he has relied much more on private philanthropy than on government science-funding bureaucracies because donors are more willing to support unusual approaches, to move quickly and flexibly, to stick passionately with work that is slow to yield results, and understand imaginative breakthroughs. “Frankly, my donors are more engaged than the government is,” he told Philanthropy magazine. “They want to see the project succeed.”