The Man Who Claimed That The Stegosaurus Could Fly

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, March 23, 2014
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“You’re not allowed to call them dinosaurs any more,” said Yo-less. “It’s speciesist. You have to call them pre-petroleum persons.” —Terry Pratchett, Johnny and the Bomb

In A Nutshell

Scientists don’t pretend to know everything about every dinosaur, but they’re pretty sure the stegosaurus wasn’t capable of flight. There has long been a debate as to what the distinctive plates on the back of a stegosaurus are for, and it’s been argued by at least one man that clearly, they were for gliding. W.H. Ballou’s idea never did take off in mainstream science, but it did make its way into a Tarzan novel; that’s more than most of us can say about our work.

The Whole Bushel

We’re always learning new things about the dinosaurs—which ones had feathers, which ones had scales, how they walked and what they really ate. There have been all kinds of postulations about what they looked like and how they acted for as long as we’ve been finding dinosaur bones. Many seem legit, but some . . . we can’t help but wonder if the researchers are just seeing what we’ll buy into at this point.

Like the amazing flying stegosaurus, billed as the “aeroplane dinosaur.”

The stegosaurus is one of the most distinctive dinosaurs, and even if you just have a passing familiarity with paleontology, you know this one. This is the one with the weird, upright, flat plates running down its back.

Researchers have long been trying to figure out just what those plates are for. If they’re meant to be armor, they’re poorly assembled armor. Communication? Regulating body temperature? No one’s really absolutely sure, but writer W.H. Ballou thought it was pretty obvious.

Clearly, the armored plates were used by the stegosaurus to glide through the air. Generously labeled a “paleontology enthusiast” by respected scientists, Ballou published his ideas in a full-page spread of the August 15, 1920 edition of Utah’s Ogden Standard-Examiner. The article was complete with illustrations, showing a stegosaurus in mid-glide (zooming over the head of a person in another bit of artistic license), and another ready to leap majestically into the air.

According to Ballou, the plates on the back of the stegosaurus could be maneuvered independently to provide lift for the massive beast. He says that they would glide rather than fly, as it was just silly to think that the dinosaur would have been able to flap his plates fast enough to get any actual lift. Instead, he compares the dinosaur to the flying squirrels of today, gliding gracefully through the air from . . . treetop to treetop? (He leaves that out, but that’s what we’d like to think.) This prehistoric glider was, Ballou believed, among the first of modern birds, having all the elements in place for flight. Clearly, his article states, one of the stegosaurus’s direct descendents can still be seen today—the part-mammal, part-reptilian ostrich.

In spite of the stegosaurus’s size, Ballou pointed toward evidence like its hollow bones, hollow and air-filled cavities in the skeleton and the dinosaur’s bird-like hips as further evidence for its flying capabilities. He also says that the dinosaur’s distinctive plates were actually lightweight and flexible, not the hard, heavy structures that they appear to be.

He even quotes research from the American Museum of Natural History, saying just how bird-like other scientists have said the stegosaurus is. They do, in fact, have hip structure like a bird’s instead of lizard like other dinosaurs . . . but that certainly doesn’t mean they can fly. He does, however, also note in his article that the debate over just what those armored plates on the stegosaurus were for has no means been absolutely, positively solved by his claims.

The idea shows up again later, in another book. In 1929, the flying stegosaurus was featured in Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Fantastic Gliding Stegosaurus
io9: In the 1920s, Stegosaurus had the ability to fly like a hang glider