S'pore should cut open its dinosaurs, says renowned expert

The world's most famous palaeontologist thinks Singapore should cut up the three prized dinosaurs that will be the star attractions of the new natural history museum opening next year.

That is the only way to glean any scientifically significant data to advance the study and knowledge of these prehistoric animals, he argues.

"I bet I can convince them that they should," he told The Sunday Times. "There is more information inside than there is outside. And if they don't cut it, they won't be able to do more than what anyone else has done."

It's a controversial idea that sounds like a horror story to any museum with a real dinosaur in its collection - slicing into the bones of these rare, million-year-old specimens that most would think ought to be encased like the Mona Lisa.

But palaeontologist Jack Horner, who discovered his first dinosaur fossil at the age of eight, insists the bones can be cut and put together again and nobody would know they had been taken apart.

Every single dinosaur bone that he exhibits at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana - and he has thousands in his collection - has been sliced open and put back together again.

It is only by looking into the fossils that scientists learn about how fast these animals grew, at what age they died, and what they ate.

They have also found that birds are actually dinosaurs, and that the prehistoric creatures might in fact have been warm-blooded.

A superstar in palaeontology circles, the 67-year-old Mr Horner has amassed the largest collection of North American dinosaur fossils at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana State University, where he has been curating, teaching and researching on dinosaur growth and behaviour.

Despite not having a degree - his dyslexia caused him to flunk his college exams seven times - he became famous after he and a colleague discovered in Montana the first dinosaur eggs and embryos.

His research established that dinosaurs were social animals that nested and took care of their young.

Then Hollywood came knocking. Movie producer-director Steven Spielberg wanted Mr Horner to advise him when he was making the first three Jurassic Park movies.

The palaeontologist was already in the books that inspired the series. Author Michael Crichton had based one of the characters, Dr Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill in the movies), on Mr Horner.

"I'm very happy I haven't been eaten," he said of his character. He's not fussed about the artistic licence that Spielberg and gang eventually took with the dinosaurs.

"It's my job to make sure the dinosaurs look accurate, but the animals, just like the people, are acting. They run faster than they should. No dinosaur would break apart a building to get to a person to eat when there's a perfectly good triceratop lying out in the field," he said, and shrugged.

"I'm fine with it. I wanted it to be a good movie."

That is why he agreed to play consultant again to the fourth instalment, due out in 2015. But he is tight-lipped about the new villain in this eagerly awaited sequel.

"All I can tell you is it's scary. Scarier than the first three."

Make-belief dinosaurs aside, he is busy creating his own real-life dinosaur in his lab, from a chicken.

He and his team have, for the past few years, been looking at how to turn on and off certain genes that would give chickens some dinosaur traits, like a tail, teeth and three digits on each feet.

"What we've discovered is when you turn one on, it turns on other things, so we have to figure out how to leave those off," he explained. "It is a little more complicated than we thought it would be. But we're learning a great deal about evolution."

The lab inevitably produces mutants, like three-legged chickens, but he says he does not let them develop very far.

It's not an idea that sits well with those who throw the ethical book at him, but he said: "I don't think scientists or discovery should be limited. I think we should know everything we can know. Ethics then becomes somebody's opinion."

It is in that pursuit of knowing everything one can know that he thinks dinosaur bones should be cut open - something the upcoming Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum here is not averse to.

It paid under $8 million for three diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs, the largest measuring 27m in length.

Its director, Professor Peter Ng, says the museum is already collaborating with the Tokyo National Science Museum and exploring research partnerships with the Americans.

They have all warned that some damage will have to be done.

"Before we go down this path, we will try and use new imaging technology as best as we can first," he said.

"As researchers first and foremost, curiosity drives us and we want to maximise what we can get out of good fossils like these. Good science should follow."

dawntan@sph.com.sg

Mr Jack Horner was in Singapore last week to open the Titans Of The Past - Dinosaurs And Ice Age Mammals exhibition, which showcases life-size dinosaur skeleton casts, real dinosaur fossils and animatronics from the Museum of the Rockies, as well as from Argentina. The exhibition is on till Feb 23 at the Science Centre Singapore.


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