There are over a thousand species of dinosaurs that are known to science today. Kids, it seems, are more disposed to remember these names than adults, and I have encountered several examples of children trying to impress people by rattling off as many dinosaur names as possible. In fact, it embarrasses me to state that I used to be one of these pint-sized paleontological know-it-alls. Of all of these names, there are about twenty or so that nearly everybody knows straight off the top of their heads, and Stegosaurus is unquestionably one of them.
Stegosaurus is one of the most well-known and easily-recognized dinosaurs out there. It is the definitive Jurassic armored plant-eater that everybody knows and loves. It has been consistently featured in nearly every children’s dinosaur book going back as far as the 1950s and it is a favorite subject of paleo-artists. Ask practically anybody what a Stegosaurus is, and they can describe what one looks like for you: four legs, plates on its back, spikes on its tail, and a brain the size of a walnut.
However, there are a lot of misconceptions about this iconic Jurassic armored tank, not only regarding its intelligence but also its appearance. Paleo-artists have regularly portrayed Stegosaurus as a massive hulking brute, but new science suggests that this animal was much slimmer and elegant than how it’s commonly portrayed.
The first Stegosaurus fossils were discovered in Colorado during the 1870s as part of the “Bone Wars”, an intense scientific feud between Prof. Edward D. Cope of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and Prof. Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale University in their quest to become THE paleontologist of the late 19th Century by discovering and naming more species than the other guy. When the fossils were first uncovered, Marsh looked at the large back plates and thought that they were pieces of an enormous turtle shell; it wasn’t until later that he realized that they actually came from a dinosaur. In 1877, the fossils were officially given the name Stegosaurus armatus “the armed roof lizard”, because the back plates reminded Marsh of roof shingles.
As the Bone Wars continued, more specimens of Stegosaurus were discovered. However, O. C. Marsh was not working with complete specimens – only with partial skeletons or fragments. Therefore, whenever he found a specimen that did not look EXACTLY like something that he had already seen, he automatically assumed that it was a different species. Consequently, numerous species were ascribed to Stegosaurus such as S. armatus, S. affinis, S. duplex, S. laticeps, S. sulcatus, S. ungulatus, and probably the most well-known of all of them, S. stenops. A few of these were later determined to by synonymous. However, after a long and thorough examination of the finds, it appears that there were indeed three or maybe four distinct species.
Of all of the species that have been named, Stegosaurus stenops is probably the most widely recognized simply because more skeletons have been found of this particular species than any other. Stegosaurus stenops, therefore, might have been the most common species of its genus. However, prehistoric population percentages are extremely difficult to determine because the studies tend to be very subjective rather than objective. There might also be preservation biases in fossilization which would lead to some species being more likely to fossilize than others. The number of fossils, therefore, should not always be automatically correlated to population numbers.
Illustration of the skull of Stegosaurus stenops. Illustration from The Dinosaurs of North America by Othniel Charles Marsh. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896.
Stegosaurus stenops might be the most well-known Stegosaurus species due to the sheer number of fossil specimens that have been found, but it wasn’t the largest member of its kind. Stegosaurus stenops reached about 25 feet long, while another species named Stegosaurus ungulatus was slightly larger, reaching 30 feet long. In fact, S. ungulatus is the largest stegosaur species that we know of in the entire world. However, a stegosaur from Europe named Dacentrurus may challenge that title. The problem is that this animal is known only from partial remains, so its total length is difficult to determine. Most sources that I have seen identify it as a medium-sized animal measuring 15 to 20 feet long, and there are only a handful of finds which hint that it might have grown larger. So, for the time being, S. ungulatus still holds the world record of “biggest stegosaur ever”.
Stegosaurus has been intensely studied ever since its discovery, partly due to its novel appearance. Even so, there are a lot of misconceptions about how this animal looked which have been perpetuated over the years.
Previous restorations have shown Stegosaurus as having a short compressed body with a highly arched back, short front legs, freakishly tall back legs, and a tail that’s substantially shorter than what you would expect. This image has been copied for decades and it has become so engrained into our consciousness that we automatically assume that this is how a Stegosaurus is supposed to look. One of the things that needs to be considered is that this image was completely contrary to the majority of other stegosaur species found elsewhere in Europe, Africa, India, and China, which had longer necks, shorter legs, smoothly-curving backs, and long tails. However, we just assumed that Stegosaurus was weird and didn’t fit with the majority of stegosaur anatomy, until some new discoveries were made in the 2000s.
While a complete specimen of Stegosaurus has never been found, a skeleton of a sub-adult Stegosaurus which was discovered in 2003 in Wyoming helped to substantially change our perceptions of this animal. Named “Sophie”, this 18-foot-long skeleton was 80% complete, making it the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever found. It took many years to clean the skeleton up, measure it, and mount it for public display in 2014. When all of the work was done, Sophie had some noteworthy aspects to her anatomy which did not fit with the traditional image, and this compelled scientists to update their reconstructions of how Stegosaurus was supposed to look. The revised image showed this animal as having much shorter back legs, a lower back, a longer stretched-out neck, and a longer tail. The resulting image is much more sinuous and streamlined than the previous image of the brooding bruising hulk that’s been around for ages.
Below is a rough sketch that I had made sometime during the late 2000s of Stegosaurus stenops based upon the information that I had at the time. This shows how Stegosaurus was believed to appear since at least the 1980s, with its conspicuously high-arched hump back, very long rear legs, and a rather short tail.
Now, here is an updated version of how Stegosaurus stenops would have looked based upon our current understanding of this animal’s anatomy. The neck is slightly longer because this creature had more cervical vertebrae than we had previously thought. The back legs aren’t as tall as we once thought they were, and this makes the back much lower and less strongly arched. Finally, the tail is noticeably longer. The resulting image is much more in-line with what we know about other stegosaur species and doesn’t make Stegosaurus appear as freakish as it once was. This drawing was made with No.2 pencil on printer paper and was made in 1:20 scale. From the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, this drawing measures precisely 15 inches long, which would make it 25 feet long in real life.
Stegosaurus is instantly recognizable due to its back plates and tail spikes. These physical features are, anatomically-speaking, highly transformed osteoderms. The word “osteoderm” literally means “skin bone”, and it refers to any bone object which is embedded within the skin or is visible on the body’s exterior rather than forming a part of the structural skeleton. Technically, a stegosaur’s plates and spikes are osteoderms because they are attached onto the body rather than being incorporated as part of its skeleton.
While the plates and spikes may be the most obvious features to Stegosaurus’ anatomy, there were other, more subtle aspects that provided it with a certain measure of protection. Notably, there existed a series of marble-like osteoderms covering the underside of the neck where the neck connects to the skull and extending backwards for about half of the neck’s length. This almost certainly evolved as a means to protect the carotid artery and jugular vein from being torn open by a predator, yet it’s perplexing that it would only extend halfway down the neck rather than covering the entire neck. This pebbly structure forms the equivalent of a chain-mail pixane, a type of armored throat protector which was worn by Medieval knights. My gracious thanks to Mr. Ian LaSpina for his wonderful video series on Medieval armor which let me know of the existence of such an object. Please check out his website on Medieval clothing, armor, and weapons here or his YouTube channel here.
Medieval armor researcher Ian LaSpina wearing a pixane (also called a pisan or a standard), a chain-mail collar meant to protect the throat. Image courtesy of Ian LaSpina (2014), used with permission.
As stated earlier, Stegosaurus was a genus composed of three or four species, and each of them had a slightly different appearance not only in terms of their overall size but also in their body proportions, including the size and shape of the dorsal plates. The plates of Stegosaurus ungulatus are much smaller and narrower than those of Stegosaurus stenops, and they come to a pronounced sharp point at the tip. By contrast, the plates of Stegosaurus stenops were large, wide-based, and they have somewhat rounded ends.
The number of plates that Stegosaurus possessed is difficult to determine. Various sources give numbers ranging from seventeen to twenty-two plates in total. This probably has to do with the fact that most sources lump all species of Stegosaurus together, not taking into account that different species have different appearances, including different numbers of plates running along the back. It also might be partially to do with the fact that a 100% complete specimen of Stegosaurus has never been found, and therefore we cannot be entirely certain of how many plates it indeed had. The finished drawing of Stegosaurus stenops which you see above has a total of nineteen plates.
One of the topics which has generated a sizeable amount of academic debate is how the plates were arranged on the back. The earliest reconstruction of this animal shows the plates lying down on the back like overlapping fish scales. Some artists depicted this animal as having a double row of plates with the plates arranged in pairs. For much of the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, Stegosaurus was shown with the plates arranged in a single line running down the middle of the back. However, the most common arrangement that you will see nowadays is a double line of staggered alternating plates. How far apart were these two rows from each other? That, also, is a subject of conjecture. Some reconstructions show them butted up against each other along the top of the animal’s spine, forming a V-shape when seen from the front. Other artists put a gap in between the two rows, with the wideness being largely personal interpretation.
Depiction of Stegosaurus ungulatus made in 1896 showing it with eight tail spikes and a single line of back plates. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.
Depiction of Stegosaurus ungulatus by Charles Knight (1901) showing it with a double row of paired plates. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.
Depiction of Stegosaurus ungulatus by G. E. Roberts (1901) showing it with a double row of alternating plates. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.
One of the things that you’ll notice in my drawing is that the plates are non-symmetrical. Not only are they arranged in a staggered formation along the back instead of being arranged in pairs, but also the plates on one side are of a different size and shape to the plates on the opposite side; no two plates on any Stegosaurus’ back look exactly alike to each other.
While some older sources on dinosaurs claimed that Stegosaurus’ plates were used in defense, this idea is false. Defensive armament would be better served if the plates were lying flat upon the body like overlapping armor plates, and being substantially thickened. However, the plates stand erect upon the animal’s back, leaving the sides completely unprotected. The plates are also very thin in cross-section and they would have been easily broken if they were impacted by something. Rather, the plates were almost certainly used for display. The plates extending upwards from the animal’s spine also would have made the animal look far larger than it actually was, likely as a means to deter predators.
In life, the back plates would not have been exposed bone. Instead, they would have been covered with a protective layer of keratin – the same stuff that your fingernails are made out of. Based upon the texture of the plate’s surface, it seems highly probable that these plates were not covered in scaly skin.
In addition to the dorsal plates, another distinctive feature of Stegosaurus are the four spikes on the end of its tail. While there is no official anatomical term for this feature, this weaponized tail is nowadays commonly referred to as a “thagomizer”. The name is based upon a 1982 comic from The Far Side by Gary Larson in which the tail was named in honor of a caveman named Thag Simmons who met his maker by it. Since then, it has gained popularity within the scientific community and is now an unofficial anatomical vocabulary term. It was even referenced in the fourth episode of the 2011 BBC documentary series Planet Dinosaur.
Similar to the academic debate concerning the placement and arrangement of Stegosaurus’ dorsal plates, there has likewise been an argument concerning the placement of the tail spikes. Based upon the shape of the base of these spikes, nearly all people can agree that they were angled backwards, pointing towards the tip of the tail rather than pointing forwards or directly sideways. Unfortunately, there’s not much else that we know about the spikes’ position on the body, and this has led to a lot of varying interpretations over the years. Some reconstructions and paleo-art show the spikes sticking virtually straight up, while others show them positioned outwards horizontally; this latter position has become somewhat trendy recently. However, the vast majority of 2D and 3D reconstructions show the left and right spikes positioned in a V-shape at varying degrees, with the angle being either narrower or wider depending upon the supervising museum curator, fossil preparator, or artist. So far, nobody has been able to definitively say how the tail spikes ought to be positioned. Perhaps the only way in which this debate may be settled is if a mummy is found or if a Stegosaurus specimen is found preserved in three dimensions similar to the infamous “Dueling Dinos” find.
While no skin impressions have been found in association with Stegosaurus fossils, they have been found with a related species called Hesperosaurus. It’s based upon this find that we can make inferences about what the skin of Stegosaurus would have looked like.
In 1985, the remains of a stegosaur skeleton were discovered in north-central Wyoming in rocks dated to approximately 156 MYA, in a rock layer that marks the lowest and oldest layer of the Morrison Formation. Upon careful examination of the skeleton, it was determined that this did not belong to any known species of Stegosaurus, but was instead a previously unknown genus. In 2001, it was named Hesperosaurus, “the western lizard”. Hesperosaurus differed from Stegosaurus in that it was slightly smaller (20 feet long instead of 25-30 feet) and its plates were smaller and a bit more rounded in shape. Hesperosaurus might have been the direct ancestor of the more famous Stegosaurus, but more evidence is needed before this claim can be definitively proven.
In 1995, another stegosaur skeleton was discovered in northern Wyoming in rocks dated to approximately 155-150 MYA. This skeleton was remarkable not only due to the fact that it was nearly complete, but it also contained one spot on its body with preserved skin, located on the animal’s right side in between its front right and back right legs. It wasn’t until September of 2010, fifteen years after the skeleton was discovered, that a description of this specimen was published. It was identified as belonging to Hesperosaurus.
The skin impression from Hesperosaurus consists of small non-overlapping scales which are either round, oval, or polygonal in shape. The further up the back you go, the larger the animal’s scales become, with some of the scales becoming large, oval-shaped, and surrounded by a ring of smaller scales. Most of the body’s hexagonal scales measured 2-7mm in diameter, but the oval scales higher up on the flanks are much larger than that. One rosette measured 8x10mm in area, and another further up on the back measured 10x20mm in area. These larger scales are noticeably more rounded in texture, forming distinctive “lumps”, arranged in rows lengthwise down the body. Technically these are not true osteoderms because they do not have a bony core. Instead, they could be considered as “dermal scutes”, which are nothing more than scales, like other body scales, which just happen to be unusually large and thick compared with other scales on the body. Although it cannot be proven, it’s possible that Stegosaurus had a similar skin texture to its relative Hesperosaurus.
While skin texture can be speculated upon with a certain degree of accuracy, skin color is something that falls entirely into the realm of guesswork. To date, no preserved pigment cells have been discovered in any stegosaur fossil. Traditionally, Stegosaurus has been depicted as being green with the back plates colored in red, orange, or pink. This color scheme has been around since the 1950s, and it has been copied so many times that many people automatically think of this image whenever they hear the word “Stegosaurus”. This contrasting color scheme of green plus some color on the red end of the spectrum is visually striking and appealing to the eye, and may be the reason why it is so commonly seen to the point of it being considered a “paleo meme” to use Darren Naish’s term. But how probable is it that Stegosaurus was colored in this way? There’s really no way to tell.
Below is a colorized rendition of my updated Stegosaurus drawing showing it garbed in a traditional color scheme consisting of a mottled green with reddish plates.
One argument can be made that Stegosaurus was probably colored in more muted tones given it lived in an environment which was dry and arid for much of the year. Such a color scheme can be seen in Fred Wierum’s artwork in which he gives his Stegosaurus a distinctly desert-themed coloration of tan and brown. Unfortunately, I was not able to gain permission to use his work on this website; you can see his painting here.
Paleo-artist and children’s author Patricia Bujard has also liveried her Stegosaurus in various desert-themed color patterns. Below are a series of Stegosaurus illustrations that she has made dated, left to right: November 9, 2016. August 2, 2017. January 4, 2018. All images © Patricia Bujard. All images are used with permission. Please check out her wonderful website, Pete’s Paleo Petshop, to view more of her lovely illustrations.
It has also been proposed by Patricia Bujard that Stegosaurus, and possibly all stegosaurs, might have been decked out with bright color patterns that are similar to venomous snakes, poison arrow frogs, or poisonous insects. Such colors would loudly advertise that it is a dangerous animal and it would serve as a warning to potential predators to back off. A color scheme which evokes this idea is a painting of Tuojiangosaurus, a stegosaur from China, made by Brian Franczak during either the late 1980s or early 1990s. In this painting, the animal is vividly portrayed in contrasting colors of black and yellowish-orange.
Here is another colorized version of my Stegosaurus drawing portraying it in a much more un-orthodox color scheme of bright black and orange stripes with a bold yellow underside, and with plates that are patterned with red, a black edge, and bright yellow “eye spots” in the center, and with black-and-yellow striped tail spikes. The message here – Stay away from me! The stripes on the body are formed by the lines of dermal scutes that are arranged on the animal’s sides. Since we only have a small patch of preserved skin from one Hesperosaurus specimen, we cannot know how extensive these scutes were on the animal’s body or if they were arranged in any kind of pattern. However, if they were arranged in a series of horizontal lines, or at least lines that more-or-less followed the body’s contours in a front-to-back arrangement, then it’s possible that these lines of scutes might have demarcated different color areas on the body. It’s just a thought. The resulting coloration is remarkably reminiscent of Brian Franczak’s painting, even though it wasn’t intended to be. My gracious thanks to Madame Bujard for helping me with this.
Finally, here is a colorized rendition of a Stegosaurus showing a combination of the two color patterns which you see above. It has the stereotypical mottled green body, but it has the more vibrantly-colored plates seen in the second drawing. Personally, I like this one the best.
I hope that you enjoyed this article. Please like, comment, and subscribe, and as always, keep your pencils sharp.