Retro vs Modern #13: Stegosaurus stenops

The first known stegosaur fossils were found in England and South Africa between the 1840s and 1870s, but these dinosaurs weren’t properly recognized as a highly distinctive group until the discovery of Stegosaurus itself in North America during the late 1870s.


The first Stegosaurus reconstructions were based on fragmentary and disarticulated fossil material, and its life appearance was very poorly understood. Initially it was depicted as a bipedal long-necked animal, with its plates laying flat against its back like a turtle shell, numerous spikes across its back, and more plates running along its tail.


Better skeletons of the species Stegosaurus stenops were discovered in the late 1880s, and by the 1890s stegosaur anatomy was becoming clearer. Reconstructions quickly adopted an arch-backed body shape with a tiny head and drooping tail, short semi-sprawling forelimbs and long hindlimbs, and with the plates now properly upright on the back and the spikes at the end of the tail.

Stegosaurus‘ unique appearance rapidly made it one of the most famous and recognizable dinosaurs to the general public. Its comical-seeming tiny head and even tinier brain also unfortunately ended up contributing to the prevailing early 20th century attitude that dinosaurs were sluggish and unintelligent, with the myth that it needed a “second brain” in its hips to control its huge body becoming a popular notion for quite some time.

The exact arrangement of the iconic back plates and tail spikes was uncertain for several decades, with early versions in the 1890s having up to eight tail spikes and a single row of plates. This was then updated in the 1900s to a double row of symmetrical plate pairs, and by the 1920s the standard arrangment had soon become an alternating two-row pattern with the tail spikes reduced to four – a layout that’s still considered correct today.


In the second half of the 20th century a combination of numerous new stegosaur species from China and the Dinosaur Renaissance began to revise the way Stegosaurus was understood, bringing it into a fully upright posture with its head and tail held high, and recognizing the convergently sauropod-like anatomy of its hands and feet.

But something still wasn’t right.

Compared to other known stegosaurs, Stegosaurus itself was starting to seem… rather weird. Its short neck, short forelegs, giant plates, sloping back and high rump were much more exaggeratedly proportioned than any of its relatives.

This was finally resolved in the 2010s when a near-complete specimen nicknamed “Sophie” was thoroughly described – and revealed that Stegosaurus’ proportions had been wrong the whole time. All previous skeletal reconstructions had been composites, put together from remains of multiple individuals that had all been different ages and sizes, and in the process had heavily distorted our idea of what this animal actually looked like.

Our modern view of Stegosaurus is now a much more typical stegosaur than before. It lived during the Late Jurassic, about 155-145 million years ago, across the Western and South Central United States (with a possible additional occurence in Portugal), alongside several other iconic dinosaurs of the “Jurassic savanna” like Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, and Allosaurus.

It grew up to around 9m long (~30ft), and had a small head with a long narrow snout, with a toothless beak at the front of its jaws and small peg-shaped teeth further back. Bony ossicles lined the underside of its neck, possibly providing chainmail-like protection to its throat, and its skin was covered in tiny pebbly scales interspersed with “rosettes” formed around slightly larger oval scales. Its neck was longer than previously thought, more in line with other stegosaurs, and its torso and hind legs were a bit shorter, making its posture more horizontal and its back less arched.

The actual function of the large back plates is still uncertain. Ideas about them being defensive armor (and speculation about them even being moveable!) have mostly been discounted at this point, since they were actually relatively fragile – although their keratinous covering may have had a fairly sharp edge. Thermoregulation has been a popular explanation for many decades, with blood vessel impressions in the plates being proposed as evidence they were used as “radiators” to prevent overheating like the ears of modern African elephants.

But currently the most likely primary plate function is thought to be visual display, with the large plates increasing the perceived size of Stegosaurus either to intimidate predators and rivals or to impress potential mates. If this was the case then they may have also been strikingly colored and patterned in life.

Meanwhile the “thagomizer” on its tail actually does seem to have been a weapon, with injuries to that area of the body being fairly common, and several Allosaurus fossils have been found with puncture wounds the exact size and shape of Stegosaurus spikes. Articulated specimens have also shown that the tail curved downwards at the tip, holding the thagomizer with the spikes pointing horizontally outwards and backwards.

Retro vs Modern #03: Hylaeosaurus armatus

Despite being the third-ever scientifically named dinosaur genus, and being used in the first official definition of dinosaurs as a group, Hylaeosaurus armatus has ended up as a much less well-known name than Iguanodon or even Megalosaurus.

It was also the very first ankylosaur to be discovered, found as a partial skeleton in Southeast England in the early 1830s. Its large bony spikes were quickly recognized as being some sort of defensive armor, initially thought to be arranged in a vertical row along the animal’s back and tail.


The Victorian Crystal Palace statue of Hylaeosaurus is surprisingly decent for such an early attempt at reconstructing something as weird as an ankylosaur. It gives the impression of a slower and much more lizard-like animal than Iguanodon or Megalosaurus, showing it as a large squat quadruped with hoof-like claws and heavily armored scaly skin, with long spines running along its back and numerous smaller bony bumps over its head and sides.


Discoveries of other more complete armored dinosaurs began to give a better picture of what ankylosaurs actually looked like. But although Hylaeosaurus was soon recognized as having had multiple rows of spikes rather than just one, actual reconstructions of it seem to have been scarce during this period – mostly all derivative of a single 1869 image that depicted it as a sort of fat sprawling pinecone-lizard bristling with spikes.


Still only known from fragmentary material, Hylaeosaurus has remained rather obscure for a long time. In the 21st century it’s started to get a bit more attention, however, with the original specimen being further prepared and examined – and 2020 was Hylaeosaurus’ big year, with both a redescription of the genus being published and it also being featured on a special-edition British 50p coin.

Hylaeosaurus was probably around 4m long (~13′), and lived in southeast England about 140-136 million years ago. It may have also ranged further across Europe, with possible remains known from Germany and some more dubious records from France, Spain, and Romania. Generally classified as an early nodosaurid, most of our modern knowledge of what it would have looked like comes from other discoveries of much better-known ankylosaurian relatives, including some exquisitely well-preserved examples in the last few years like Borealopelta and Zuul.

It would have had a low triangular head, with a toothless beak at the front of its jaws and leaf-shaped teeth further back, and a pair of short horns on the back of its skull behind its eyes. Rows of spiky osteoderm armor ran along is body, with longer curving spines over its shoulders, all covered in thick keratin sheaths that would have made them look even larger in life. Numerous smaller bony nodules in its skin filled in the gaps between the armor, forming a tough protective shield over its entire back. Its short powerful limbs had hoof-like claws, and if it was indeed a nodosaurid its tail would have lacked the famous club of its ankylosaurid cousins.

Based on Borealopelta we even now know a little bit about the potential coloration and patterning of these animals – some of them were reddish-colored, with a countershaded camouflage pattern, darker on top and lighter on the underside.


While some ankylosaurs are famous for their specialized tail clubs, Stegouros elengassen here had something else entirely going on with its rear end.

Known from the late Cretaceous of southern Chile, about 75-72 million years ago, this small ankylosaur was around 1.5m long (~5′), roughly the size of a large dog. It had a proportionally larger head and more slender limbs than most other ankylosaurs, and a pelvis more resembling a stegosaur, but its most distinctive feature was its tail – it had a completely unique never-before-seen type of tail weapon, with a flat “frond-like” structure formed from several pairs of large fused osteoderms making a shape resembling a macuahuitl.

It seems to have been part of a previously unrecognized very early-branching lineage of Gondwanan ankylosaurs – the parankylosaurians – with its closest relatives Antarctopelta and Kunbarrasaurus also included in this new group. And since the tail regions of both of those other species are poorly known, this means they may also have possessed macuahuitls.

Eons Roundup 9

New year, new PBS Eons commission roundup day!

The ancient walruses Neotherium and Valenictus, from “How the Walrus Got Its Tusks”

The nodosaurid ankylosaur Borealopelta, in both alive and “bloat-and-float” carcass states, from “The Dinosaur Who Was Buried at Sea”

The ankylosaurid ankylosaurs Gobisaurus and Dyoplosaurus, from “How Ankylosaurs Got Their Clubs”


The distinctive armored ankylosaurs and stegosaurs were very closely related to each other, and were part of a group of dinosaurs known as the thyreophorans.

One of the earliest known members of this lineage was Scutellosaurus lawleri. Living in Arizona during the Early Jurassic, about 196-183 million years ago, it was a small lightly-built bipedal herbivore, only about 1.2m long (3′11″) – with over half that length being just its unusually long tail.

Its body was covered in rows of hundreds of small bony osteoderms, helping to protect it against larger predators like Dilophosaurus. And this was obviously an evolutionary strategy that worked very well for Scutellosaurus and other early thyreophorans, because within about 20 million years they’d given rise to the first true ankylosaurs and stegosaurs – with the tank-like ankylosaurs being especially successful, spreading to every continent and lasting all the way up until the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.