The gliding Stegosaurus

Those in dinosaur research might well be aware of a joke SVP abstract a few years back that claimed Stegosaurus was a cursorial biped. That however has nothing on this report from 1920 that describes this substantial animal was a glider, using its plates for wing. As far as I can tell it’s quite genuine. It’s also awesome. Go read.

My hat is tipped in the direction of John Hutchinson and Jeff Martz for this.

25 Responses to “The gliding Stegosaurus”


  1. 1 Heinrich Mallison 27/05/2012 at 8:27 pm

    I remember that abstract – it was a joke, but nearly at the same time (IIRC) there was a serious (LOL) paper saying hadrosaurs were aquatic. OUCH!

    • 2 David Hone 27/05/2012 at 8:44 pm

      I have heard from a friend who the actual submitter of the abstract was. However, although I know them quite well (and am even collaborating on a project), I’ve never got round to asking if they really were responsible. Must do that one day…

  2. 5 Heinrich Mallison 27/05/2012 at 9:03 pm

    Interestingly, the COM in stegos is far enough back that bipedal walking was definitely not impossible.

  3. 7 Squiddhartha 27/05/2012 at 11:21 pm

    That 1920 article is amazing, not least because it is illustrated by none other than Winsor McCay of _Little Nemo In Slumberland_ fame!

  4. 8 Pete Ross 27/05/2012 at 11:39 pm

    The big illustration is by Winsor McCay, the cartoonist behind the early animation, “Gertie the Dinosaur,” coincidentally.

  5. 9 Craig Erickson 28/05/2012 at 12:08 am

    I wonder if that’s the same W. H. Ballou who wrote articles about the so-called Nevada “shoe print” in Triassic aged stone? http://paleo.cc/paluxy/nevada.htm

  6. 11 Mark Robinson 28/05/2012 at 7:07 am

    The newspaper article is in the comic section so perhaps it isn’t meant to be taken seriously altho’ it’s not obviously a joke. The maths is a little odd, too. The (million year-old) Stegosaurus was apparently 14-28 ft long betw the shoulder and hips with a similar length tail and another 6-10 ft of head & neck, for a total of only 30 ft.

    Just don’t let John Ford know about it or we’ll be reading about aquaplaning dinosaurs in all of the parrot press, and he’ll be compared with the likes of Copernicus and Aristotle.

  7. 12 Mike Taylor 28/05/2012 at 8:50 am

    Very interesting. This seems to have come out in 1920, based on the copyright date at the bottom. This means that it predates by ten years the occurrence of a gliding stegosaur in Edgar Rice Burrows’s Tarzan at the Earth’s Core:

    … the summit of the opposite cliff where stood such a creature as no living man upon the outer crust had ever looked upon before–a giant armored dinosaur it was, a huge reptile that appeared to be between sixty and seventy feet in length, standing at the rump, which was its highest point, fully twenty-five feet above the ground. Its relatively small, pointed head resembled that of a lizard. Along its spine were thin, horny plates arranged alternately, the largest of which were almost three feet high and equally as long, but with a thickness of little more than an inch. The stout tail, which terminated in a long, horny spine, was equipped with two other such spines upon the upper side and toward the tip. Each of these spines was about three feet in length. The creature walked upon four lizard-like feet, its short, front legs bringing its nose close to the ground, imparting to it an awkward and ungainly appearance.

    It appeared to be watching the man in the canyon, and suddenly, to Jason’s amazement, it gathered its gigantic hind legs beneath it and launched itself straight from the top of the lofty cliff.

    Jason’s first thought was that the gigantic creature would be dashed to pieces upon the ground in the canyon bottom, but to his vast astonishment he saw that it was not falling but was gliding swiftly through the air, supported by its huge spinal plates, which it had dropped to a horizontal position, transforming itself into a gigantic animate glider.

    AS JASON GRIDLEY leaped down the canyon side toward the lone warrior who stood facing the attack of the tremendous reptile gliding swiftly through the air from the top of the, opposite cliff side, there flashed upon the screen of his recollection the picture of a restoration of a similar extinct reptile and he recognized the creature as a stegosaurus of the Jurassic; but how inadequately had the picture that he had seen carried to his mind the colossal proportions of the creature, or but remotely suggested its terrifying aspect.

    Jason saw the lone warrior standing there facing inevitable doom, but in his attitude there was no outward sign of fear. In his right hand he held his puny spear, and in his left his crude stone knife. He would die, but he would give a good account of himself. There was no panic of terror, no futile flight.

    The distance between Jason and the stegosaurus was over great for a revolver shot, but the American hoped that he might at least divert the attention of the reptile from its prey and even, perhaps, frighten it away by the unaccustomed sound of the report of the weapon, and so he fired twice in rapid succession as he leaped downward toward the bottom of the canyon. That at least one of the shots struck the reptile was evidenced by the fact that it veered from its course, simultaneously emitting a loud, screaming sound.

    Attracted to Jason by the report of the revolver and evidently attributing its hurt to this new enemy, the reptile, using its tail as a rudder and tilting its spine plates up on one side, veered in the direction of the American.

    (Read more here, if you can bear it.)

    So could it possibly be the Burrows thought that Ballou’s report provided a scientific basis for this scene?

    Special bonus weirdness: W. H. Ballou (1897) was also responsible for the earliest known life restoration of sauropods: a group of four fully aquatic Amphicoelias individuals, two of them completely submerged and the other two with only their heads above water.

    Ballou, W. H. 1897. Strange creatures of the past: gigantic saurians of the reptilian age. The Century, 55(1):15– 23.

  8. 16 Zhen 28/05/2012 at 4:42 pm

    Wow, there’s even a little naked man next to the flying Stegosaaurus.

  9. 17 chris y 28/05/2012 at 7:15 pm

    Ooooh!!! A pneumatic ornithischian. And identified in 1920!

  10. 18 Mike Keesey (@tmkeesey) 30/05/2012 at 3:46 pm

    Brad McFeeters had a similar but even more outlandish idea about Dimetrodon: http://fc00.deviantart.net/fs14/f/2007/109/a/a/__Dimetrodon_volans___by_Brad_ysaurus.jpg

    (Yes, this is a joke.)

  11. 21 Mike from Ottawa 30/05/2012 at 10:49 pm

    Gliding, eh? And here I’d thought it was only flattening after death that obscured the truth that Stegosaurus’ plates were actually helical and itn life it spun the plates on their vertical axes to provide lift like a helicopter.

    If there’s anything that would be neater than a gliding Stegosaurus, it’d be a VTOL Stegosaurus.

  12. 22 P. David Polly 10/10/2013 at 2:45 am

    Thread is a little old, but I’m slow. However, it is still worth adding: Robert T. Karbek submitted a number of abstracts to SVP, but only one was ever published. One of the best postulated a new hypothesis for the function of archosaur fenestra, namely that they were lined with membranes that picked up soundwaves of different frequencies. The large one in the antorbital area picked up the low frequency thump-thump-thumping of the footfalls of sauropod dinosaurs, the mid-sized infratemporal fenestra picked up the midrange sounds of its conspecifics, and the tiny supratemporal fenestra picked up the high-pitched tweets of the “ubiquitous haramyid” multituberculates.

    Karbek did, in fact, present a poster on the bipedal stegosaur. Here is the description from an eye-witness:

    “Yes, including a graph with two (real) data points on stegosaur limb proportions, with the caption “Line shows clear trend.” There was also a digital photo of a traffic pylon (captioned “Digital photo of traffic pylon”) with flagging tape wrapped around it, illustrating a clever and potentially useful
    method determining center of mass of simple objects. Another figure
    showed migration of cerebral glial cells to form grey matter in the
    second brain, by way of a hand-drawn red arrow along the spinal cord.
    Matt Carrano was apparently laughing his brains out. That was nice, but
    we were rather disturbed that other people took the analysis seriously
    and agreed with K. The author must have snuck in early to take it down,
    since it disappeared the next day.”

    • 23 David Hone 10/10/2013 at 6:42 pm

      I happen to know who was behind the Karbek poster, though despite having been with one of the guilty parties not too long ago, and them claiming to have a copy somewhere, I’ve still not seen it. Anyone got a photo? It was pre-digital, but someone must have taken a posterity snap.


  1. 1 Meanwhile, over the brutal battlefields of the Jurassic…. | The Optimistic Painting Blog Trackback on 29/05/2012 at 1:22 pm
  2. 2 The Fantastic Gliding Stegosaurus | Dinosaur Tracking Trackback on 30/05/2012 at 2:35 pm

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