In the novel Jurassic Park, the fictional scientists of the InGen corporation tried to cook up a batch of dinosaurs using fragments of DNA preserved in Mesozoic mosquito blood. An inventive idea, certainly, but not one that would actually work. In the wake of the book’s blockbuster film adaptation, though, paleontologist Robert Bakker commented that there might be another way to make a dinosaur, or at least something dinosaur-like. Birds, after all, are the living descendants of dinosaurs, and by fiddling with the genetic toggles of living birds, scientists might be able to reverse-engineer a dinosaurian creature.
Now, 18 years later, the “chickenosaurus” project is actually underway, but under the guidance of another well-known paleontologist. Two years ago Jack Horner published his outline of the project with writer James Gorman in the book How to Build a Dinosaur, and he recently provided an overview of the project at a TED talk in Long Beach, California. (Horner also delivered a TED lecture in Vancouver, but on the growth stages of dinosaurs.) The goal isn’t to perfectly re-engineer a Deinonychus or other dinosaur—that is impossible. Instead, Horner wants to use this project to investigate the role of genes and development in evolution, with the resulting creature acting as a “poster chick” for scientific investigation. Maybe a long-tailed chicken with teeth won’t satisfy those who dream of owning a pet dinosaur, but at the very least, the science might tell us something about how living dinosaurs—that is, birds—originated.