Jack Horner

Jack Horner, former Montana State University paleontologist, visits a field research site in July 2013 near Livingston.

World-famous dinosaur scientist Jack Horner, whose discoveries about how dinosaurs lived changed paleontology, will retire next year from Montana State University and the Museum of the Rockies after 33 years.

Horner will be 70 next June, and that’s when he plans to retire from the museum that he filled with groundbreaking discoveries and put on the international map. He spoke Monday in a phone interview from Princeton University, where he started as a paleontology technician 40 years ago and now is giving a scientific lecture.

“I’ve got a lot more stuff to do,” Horner said. “I’m not winding down.”

He said he intends to work with the Burke Museum in Seattle at the University of Washington, which is building a new museum, and work with a California university doing something in education – to be announced soon.

“I’m very proud of the dinosaur halls, proud of all the students I’ve had who’ve gone on to become very well known,” Horner said. “I’ve done about as much as I can do. It’s time to do something completely different – especially in the realm of education.”

An unlikely rock star of paleontology – thanks to undiagnosed dyslexia, he never read well and dropped out of the University of Montana – Horner made the headline-grabbing discovery in 1979 that dinosaurs like Maiasaura (which means “good mother lizard”) cared for their nestlings.

Horner was never interested in why dinosaurs became extinct, but focused instead on how they lived. He concluded they were warm-blooded creatures, more closely related to birds than lizards.

He filled the Museum of the Rockies with the world’s largest collection of Tyrannosaurus rex fossils and largest T. rex skull. Last year the Museum of the Rockies shipped its nearly complete Wankel T. rex to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where it will shine as “the Nation’s T. rex” in a new hall opening in 2019.

An inspiration for Michael Crichton’s paleontologist in the novel “Jurassic Park,” Horner served as advisor to filmmaker Steven Spielberg on the movie series and appeared as an extra in the latest film. He has led dinosaur-hunting expeditions to China, Mongolia, Tanzania, Romania, Argentina and France. Horner said research continues on the “chickenosaurus” project to see if a chicken can be genetically engineered back into a dinosaur.

One reason he’s retiring, Horner said, is that the Museum of the Rockies is full – from its basement to outside storage units. The Burke Museum in Seattle is raising money to build a new $95 million museum and will have room for new fossils that he plans to keep collecting in eastern Montana’s Hell Creek Formation.

Shelley McKamey, Museum of the Rockies director, said Horner will be deeply missed.

“He opened the science of paleontology to the general public and sparked the imagination of countless aspiring paleontologists,” McKamey said.

A public celebration of his career will be held in early summer, she said. The museum will begin a national search for his replacement as curator of paleontology next summer or fall, McKamey said. “It will not be easy to replace Jack.”

Early in his career, Horner won a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.” He was later named a Montana regents professor, and has been awarded honorary doctorates, including one from UM. Earlier this year, Newton Graphic Science Magazine called him one of the world’s top 24 scientists.

“Horner has been an incredible treasure to the museum, to the university, to the state,” said Tracy Ellig, MSU spokesman. “We feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to have his star shine with us for all these years.

“Jack has a restless and penetrating intellect, and I’m sure he will continue to do amazing things in his next chapter.”

Horner expressed pride in his graduate students, including Mary Schweitzer, Dave Varricchio, Chris Organ and Holly Woodward, who have gone on to make their own discoveries in paleontology.

“I feel I’m leaving it in very good hands,” Horner said.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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