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Dino hunters hit mother lode

An ambitious five-year project aims to reconstruct an ancient ecosystem by connecting the dots between fossils.

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Three summers ago, when a team of dinosaur hunters first stumbled upon a bevy of Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons, they could have practiced old-school paleontology: piecing together the life stories of prehistoric creatures, one bone at a time.

Instead, as Jack Horner's crew jackhammered deeper into the Hell Creek geological formation, unearthing a diverse assemblage of ancient creatures and plants along the way, Mr. Horner says a larger vision began to take shape.

The traditional practice of tagging and cataloguing individual specimens for museum display – "butterfly collecting," as Mr. Horner dubs it – became less important than connecting the dots between different species.

Now, the distinguished team is applying an "ecosystem approach" to their discoveries in an effort to reveal what the late Cretaceous period looked like 68 million years ago, just prior to end of the dinosaur age. The five-year "megaproject" is intended to create a visual image that might also illuminate the imminent effects of modern global warming.

"[The dig] is allowing us to look at patterns in evolution through time to see how environmental change affected life back then," Horner explains. "This work could help provide better insight into how plants and animals adapt to ecological change today."

In the process, scientists are asking themselves what relationship T. rex bones have to nearby duckbills and triceratops bones, and, in turn, how these fossilized specimens can shed light on the lives of mammals, mollusks, and plants.

A 'rock star'

The affable Horner, who oversees the department of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., is a shy man, yet he invariably attracts a lot of attention. After all, he is the closest thing paleontology has to a rock star. The protagonist in the film "Jurassic Park" was modeled after him. In scientific circles, he is renowned for his discovery of 20,000 duck bill dinosaurs at Egg Mountain and his recent theory that the T. rex was more like a scavenging vulture than a predatory lion.

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