A Leading Palaeontologist Claims We’re Just Five Years Away From Recreating Real Living Dinosaurs

Mass extinction is one of the defining characteristics of our geological era, known as the Anthropocene. It’s an age defined by human activity and its impact on living things. In fact, animal and plant species are dying off at up to 1,000 times the natural rate of extinction. But there is one type of long-dead creature that may be about to make a comeback: the dinosaur.

Dinosaurs have long captured the imaginations of children and, undoubtedly, more than a few adults, too. From the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex to the gentle diplodocus, the creatures inspire a sense of wonder about the Earth and its distant past. Magnificent and monstrous, and yet somehow magical too, dinosaurs hint at the immense power of nature. And its tendency toward destruction.

But what if humanity became so technologically advanced that it resurrect extinct animals? What if the velociraptor, triceratops and other long-lost giants of prehistory could be brought back into existence? It sounds like an idea straight out of science fiction. But, according to one world-renowned paleontologist, a new generation of dinosaurs could be roaming the planet just five years from now.

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In fact, dinosaurs emerged as the planet’s supreme creatures after the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction. This event wiped out at least half of all living species approximately 201 million years ago. They then evolved over a period of 177 million years until the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event wiped them out too. More than 700 different types of dinosaur have been identified so far, but there are likely to have been lots more.

Indeed, dinosaurs appear to have been a highly diverse group. Some species moved about on two legs, while others used four. Still more were able to do both. Some ate meat. Others only consumed plants. Some had horns. Others evolved spiny armor. And not all dinosaurs were big-boned giants, either. In fact, many species were quite small, such as the 20-inch-long Xixianykus.

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Of course, the idea of bringing back dinosaurs was the premise of the best-selling Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park. After Stephen Spielberg directed a blockbuster adaptation of the book in 1993, a string of sequels and computer games followed. With revenues of more than $5 billion, the Jurassic Park series is in fact one of the most successful entertainment franchises ever established.

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However, the connection between Jurassic Park and a current project to revive dinosaurs is more than superficial. One of the scientific brains behind the scheme is Dr. Jack Horner, who acted as a consultant on several Jurassic Park movies. What’s more, Horner is said to have been the inspiration for Dr. Alan Grant – the good guy dino expert played by Sam Neill.

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Horner, who is Regent’s Professor of Paleontology Emeritus at Montana State University, established himself as a tour-de-force after discovering a new type of dinosaur he nicknamed the “Good Mother Lizard.” In fact, he was the first scientist to offer compelling evidence that some dinosaurs nurtured their offspring. And he subsequently went on to contribute important research on the creatures’ growth and development.

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In 2011, following the publication of Horner’s 2009 book, How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to be Forever, Horner recruited a team of scientists to try and genetically engineer a dinosaur. One of the methods he considered was extracting dino genes from a mosquito trapped in amber – just like Jurassic Park.

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In fact, a similar idea was explored by Harvard University scientists who recovered DNA directly from woolly mammoths frozen in permafrost. However, there was a problem. Although the bodies of the mammoths appeared to be well preserved, their DNA had decayed over thousands of years, leaving only fragments. With dinosaurs, the preservation timeframe is millions of years, making the problem all but unsolvable.

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So instead of searching for ancient DNA, Horner turned his attention to the living descendants of dinosaurs: birds. Indeed, the existing scientific knowledge of the anatomy and genetic structure of birds means the task of building a dinosaur is already partly accomplished. “Of course birds are dinosaurs,” Horner told People magazine in 2015. “We just need to fix them so they look a little more like a dinosaur.”

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In short, Horner is attempting to build a dinosaur by reverse-engineering it from a bird. Indeed, evolution is not a clean process and all complex organisms contain “obsolete” building blocks from earlier phases of development. For example, the genes for building dinosaur appendages are still present within birds, they have merely been sidelined by genes for building wings. In effect, building a dinosaur involves knowing which bird genes to switch on and off.

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And, believe it or not, the winning candidate for this incredible experiment is the humble chicken. Indeed, anyone who has seen chickens pecking and scratching for food will be in little doubt of their dino-heritage. But the birds are also cheap, low maintenance and well-domesticated. In addition, older species, such as ostriches, are not suited for labs. So then, how exactly does one build a “Chickenosaurus”?

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According to Horner, the finished organism will look like a small velociraptor. To build it, he will need to find and flip the genetic switches for a tail, arms and a snout. “Dinosaurs had long tails, arms, and hands,” he told People magazine. “And through evolution they’ve lost their tails, and their arms and hands have turned into wings. Additionally, their whole snout has changed from the velociraptor-look to the bird-like beak.”

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But could the experiment really work? It appears that it might. In fact, Dr. Matthew Harris from Harvard Medical School has already made significant progress. “Just recently, [Harris was] able to transform the head of a bird. [He] actually reverse-engineered the bird’s snout back into a dinosaur-like snout,” Horner told People magazine.

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However, the biggest obstacle to creating a Chickenosaurus, according to Horner, is the tail. As you may know, chickens do not have tails. Instead, they have something called a pygostyle. These comprise bones and muscles covered in tail feathers. The evolution of tails into pygostyles is not entirely understood, but appears to have occurred due to a series of complex mutations. And after analyzing the DNA of mice with stunted tails, Horner thinks he is close to solving the mystery.

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“We are looking for what genes take out whole segments of tail,” Horner told The Washington Post in 2014. “Our next step is to get ourselves a colony of [geckos] and then actually see if we can knock out the tail. We’re pretty sure that the tail genes we’ve discovered in mice will work here.”

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Of course, even if Horner succeeds in building his dinosaur, there remains an ethical dilemma at the heart of his project. “Just because you can do an experiment doesn’t mean that you should do an experiment,” Harris told The Washington Post in 2014. “Technically, you are going to have a messed-up chicken. It’s not a dinosaur. It’s never going to be a dinosaur, it’s just going to be a really awful monstrosity.”

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Nonetheless, Harris acknowledges that Horner’s work may lead to significant medical breakthroughs. Specifically, research into the cells in a chicken embryo which can develop into a range of tissues and organs. The results of which could contribute to the development of new cancer treatments. And understanding tail development in dinosaurs may result in treatments for spinal conditions.

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Meanwhile, if the prospect of posing for selfies with tiny velociraptors doesn’t tempt you, the price almost certainly will. The cost of Horner’s historic genetic experiment? A paltry $5 million. But should scientists do it? Of course. A theme park filled with mutant chicken monsters is the perfect metaphor for our times. Just think of the drumsticks!

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