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A pink T. rex? Look for feathers too, ‘Jurassic Park’ dino expert tells students

November 2, 2016

A Tyrannosaurus rex is supposed to be “big and scary,” said Bitterroot Elementary third-grader Sophia Keippel. That’s what dinosaur movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Land Before Time” have taught kids.

Turns out, dinosaurs might have been more flamingo than fearsome.

“I think you could even have a pink T. Rex,” paleontologist Jack Horner told students Tuesday at Beartooth Elementary. Horner, a well-known Bozeman-based palentologist, taught students that Hollywood doesn’t always portray history accurately.

Speaking to a packed gymnasium, Horner walked students through why dinosaurs have “accoutrements” — the extra stuff, like horns, frills, shields and spikes.

There likely hasn’t been a kid who played with a triceratops model who didn’t try to crash its horns into another dinosaur.

“Any time you see dinosaurs fighting, especially horned dinosaurs fighting, that was probably all wrong,” Horner said.

Shield fossils from the animals show that blood vessels ran through the shield and horns, making them a poor battering ram. And they’d have likely been a poor weapon, leaving a triceratops in danger of being crushed by a falling opponent.

Instead, Horner said, paleontologists have looked to dinosaurs’ direct descendants for answers.

“When we’re thinking about dinosaurs, we have to think about what birds do and how birds act,” Horner said. And several birds have “extra stuff” in their skulls that’s made of a same fingernail-like substance as triceratops’ horns.

The protrusions often serve a more decorative purpose in mating dances or displays between males.

“We think dinosaurs danced as well,” Horner said. And many dinosaurs also probably had vibrant feathers.

But what about “Jurassic Park”?

“I tried to get him to make (dinosaurs) colorful and feathered,” said Horner, who consulted on the “Jurassic” movies. “Steven Spielberg said colorful feathered dinosaurs are not scary.”

″(The dinosaurs) are wrong, but I guess they’re scary,” Horner said.

Beartooth students also used Periscope, a live-video service, to stream Horner’s talk on Twitter.

“We’ve got a lot of local schools here from Billings and Laurel (watching),” said Beartooth principal Travis Niemeyer.

Questions for Horner ran the gamut, but several focused on his movie work.

One student asked about velociraptors, central characters in several “Jurassic Park” films. But the dinosaur on the screen isn’t actually a velociraptor, which only stood about half as tall as a human.

″(Speilberg) didn’t like the fact that the velociraptor was really little,” Horner said. Michael Crichton, who wrote the original “Jurassic Park” book, also drew inspiration from a book written by a paleo-artist who grouped the velociraptor with the larger Deinonychus, a dinosaur whose bones have been found near Bridger.

Recently, Horner has been an advocate for a paleontologist’s view of the world.

Politics didn’t come up Tuesday, but Horner has appeared in third-party television ads criticizing Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, saying that Gianforte would use taxpayer money to fund private schools that teach creationism.

Gianforte’s foundation has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Glendive museum that holds the creationist view that humans and dinosaurs coexisted.

“He’ll say I’m attacking his religion — I’m not,” Horner said in the ad. “We just need to make sure that our kids learn the truth. I’d think twice about voting for Greg Gianforte.”

Gianforte has largely refused to talk about his religion on the campaign trail. In response to the Horner ad, spokesman Aaron Flint said Gianforte does not have an opinion on the Earth’s age. Regarding Gianforte’s views on evolution, Flint forwarded a comment made last year by Gianforte in which he said, “I believe young people should be taught how to think, not what to think, and a diversity of views are what should be presented.”