The history of science is full of ideas that were consigned to the junk drawer. Some were useful, at least until they were finally overturned, but others were just plain wacky. The science of Paleontology in particular has attracted its fair share of junk ideas. And why not? After all, these are scientists who are studying tiny fragments of once living creatures who lived millions and millions of years ago. There’s bound to be some error there. Since most of those creatures are no longer alive, some of their more peculiar features are tough to explain. Take, for example, Stegosaurus‘ most noticeable feature: its armor plating.
Today, scientists believe they might have been used for attracting mates or to regulate body temperatures, but no one is really sure. Scientists of the 19th century were just as baffled by the plates. Early paleontologists believed they might be protective armor and that the plates could be flapped, sort of like mini wings.
W.H Ballou, writer and amateur paleontologist, expanded on this idea. In 1920, he wrote an article in the Ogden Standard-Examiner laying out his hypothesis that Stegosaurus used its flaps as glider wings. The massive beast would, according to Ballou, flatten its flaps as it leaped off high spots, allowing it to glide safely to the ground.
His evidence for this behavior was…well, pretty scant. It was mostly based on the fact that Stegosaurus is classified as a “bird-hipped” dinosaur. To Ballou, this meant that birds descended from Stegosaurus and fellow “bird-hipped” species. The similarity between birds and “bird-hipped” dinosaurs was nothing more than a case of evolutionary convergence, when species of different lineages develop strikingly similar features. A classic example of this would be the evolution of wings in both birds and flying insects.
Needless to say, no scientists took Ballou’s ludicrous idea seriously. However, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, put the creature in one of his novels. In his world, the creature had a habit of dive bombing its foes, zipping through the air using its spiky tail as a rudder.
Ballou, W.H. “The Aeroplane Dinosaur of a Million Years Ago.” Ogden Standard-Examiner. August 15, 1920. pg. 8 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85058393/1920-08-15/ed-1/seq-32/
Switek, Brian. “The Fantastic Gliding Stegosaurus.” Smithsonianmag.com. May 30, 2012. Smithsonian . September 15, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-fantastic-gliding-stegosaurus-107838636/?no-ist