The Fantastic Gliding Stegosaurus

Stegosaurus was as aerodynamic as a brick, but one writer thought the prickly dinosaur used its huge plates for gliding

A gliding Stegosaurus
A gliding Stegosaurus From the Ogden Standard-Examiner, 1920

Stegosaurus is undoubtedly one of the most perplexing dinosaurs. What was all that iconic armor for? (And how did amorous stegosaurs get around that complication?) Paleontologists have been investigating and debating the function of Stegosaurus ornamentation for decades, but without much consensus. The dinosaur’s spectacular plates were certainly prominent visual signals, but could they also have been used for regulating body temperature? Or might there be some evolutionary impetus we’re not thinking of?

Of course, a few ideas have been tossed in the scientific wastebasket. Despite what 19th and early 20th century paleontologists thought, Stegosaurus plates were not protective armor. And, contrary to numerous restorations I saw as a child, Stegosaurus could not waggle or flap its plates around. But the weirdest idea of all was forwarded by paleontology enthusiast and writer W.H. Ballou in 1920. Stegosaurus plates were not armor, heat regulators, or flashy ornaments, Ballou wrote, but were wings that allowed the dinosaur to glide.

Ballou’s article appeared in the Utah’s Ogden Standard-Examiner. And, fortunately for fans of bizarre fossil ideas, a large illustration of flying Stegosaurus graces the piece. One stegosaur crouches to take off, another perches on a rock, and a third buzzes a prehistoric human. (Ballou pointed out in the article that humans originated after dinosaurs, but apparently the artist decided to take some historical license.) This ungainly and aerodynamically-challenged dinosaur, the paper said, was the “Father of All the Birds.” “Crude aeroplane or glider as the Stegosaur was, the principle of all flight was there in the parallel rows of flaps upon his back,” Ballou wrote, concluding, “Certainly he was the factory in which the first bird was built.”

There wasn’t any scientific evidence behind this. While Ballou mentioned the recent discovery of the lovely Stegosaurus skeleton now on display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History as the inspiration for the idea, the wild notion seems to have been entirely his. The vision of swooping stegosaurs isn’t attributed to any paleontological authority.

But Ballou did draw from a few references that offer a clue to his bizarre vision of gliding stegosaurs. Ballou pointed out that Stegosaurus was an ornithischian, or “bird-hipped” dinosaur. If Stegosaurus was bird-hipped, he reasoned, it must have been close to avian ancestry. Yet Ballou was confused by terminology. Despite having generally bird-like hips, the ornithischian dinosaurs—the hadrosaurs, ceratopsids, ankylosaurs, stegosaurs and others—were nowhere near the bird lineage. Their hip shape was a red herring, a case of superficial convergence. Ironically, the hips of birds were modified from an earlier “lizard-hipped” saurischian form. Ballou wasn’t the only one to be fooled by ornithischian hips—from the 1870s to the 1960s, some paleontologists thought that birds evolved from an ornithischian root—but he certainly ran with his mistaken assumption as far as he could possibly go.

Ballou wasn’t the only one taken with the dramatic idea. In a comment thread about the strange article at Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings, paleontologist Mike Taylor points out that science fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs later imagined a flying stegosaur in one of his novels. In Burroughs’ world, Stegosaurus was a formidable aerial attacker that used its fearsome, thagomizer-tipped tail as a rudder, and it’s certainly possible that the ludicrous image was inspired by Ballou’s article. Sadly, though, Stegosaurus was less aerodynamic than a brick, so we shouldn’t expect any paleo documentary scenes of angry stegosaurs dive-bombing Allosaurus.

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