Fossils of Hesperosaurus have since 1985 been found in the state of Wyoming in the United States of America. The type species Hesperosaurus mjosi was named in 2001. It is from an older part of the Morrison Formation, and so a little older than other Morrison stegosaurs. Several relatively complete skeletons of Hesperosaurus are known. One specimen preserves the first known impression of the horn sheath of a stegosaurian back plate.
Hesperosaurus was about six to seven metres long and two to three tonnes heavy. It was a member of the Stegosauridae, quadrupedal plant-eaters protected by vertical bony plates and spikes. It was closely related to Stegosaurus and was similar to it in having two rows of, possibly alternating, plates on its back and four spikes on its tail end. The plates on its back were perhaps not as tall, but were longer. It possibly had a deeper skull than Stegosaurus.
Discovery and speciesEdit
In 1985, fossil hunter Patrick McSherry at the ranch of S.B. Smith in Johnson County, Wyoming found the remains of a stegosaur. As he had troubling securing the specimen due to the hard rock matrix, he sought help from Ronald G. Mjos and Jeff Parker of Western Paleontological Laboratories Inc. They in turn cooperated with paleontologist Dee Hall of the Brigham Young University. At first it was assumed it represented an exemplar of Stegosaurus. However, Clifford Miles while preparing the remains recognised that they belonged to a species new to science.
The type species Hesperosaurus mjosi in 2001 was named and described by Kenneth Carpenter, Miles and Karen Cloward. The generic name is derived from the Greek ἕσπερος, hesperos, "western", in reference to its location in the western United States. The specific name honours Mjos, who apart from his involvement in the process of collecting and preparing the holotype, also had a cast of it made, exhibited with the inventory number DMNH 29431 in the Denver Museum of Natural History.
The holotype, HMNH 001 (later HMNS 14), was found in the Windy Hill Member, stratigraphic zone 1 of the lower Morrison Formation, dating from the early Kimmeridgian, about 156 million years old. In 2001, it represented the oldest known American stegosaur. It consists of a nearly complete skull and much of the skeleton. It includes the disarticulated elements of the skull, the rear lower jaws, an hyoid, thirteen neck vertebrae, thirteen back vertebrae, three sacrals, forty-four tail vertebrae, neck ribs, dorsal ribs, chevrons, a left shoulderblade, a complete pelvis, ossified tendons and ten neck and back plates. The skeleton was partly articulated and, in view of healed fractures, belongs to an old individual. It was obtained by the Japanese Hayashibara Museum of Natural Science at Okayama.
From 1995 onward at the Howe-Stephens Quarry in Big Horn County, Wyoming, named after the historic location of the Howe Ranch, once explored by Barnum Brown, and the new owner Press Stephens, Swiss palaeontologist Hans Jacob Siber excavated stegosaur specimens. The first was SMA 3074-FV01 (also SMA M04), a partial skeleton dubbed "Moritz" after Max und Moritz as an earlier sauropod skeleton from the site had been nicknamed "Max". In September 1995, specimen SMA 0018 (also mistakenly referred to as SMA M03) was uncovered, dubbed "Victoria" after the feeling of victory the exploring team felt when they discovered allosaurus "Big Al Two" after the original "Big Al" had been confiscated as federal property. It represents a rather complete skeleton with skull, also preserving skin and horn sheath impressions. A third specimen was found in 2002: SMA L02, dubbed "Lilly" after the sisters Nicola and Rabea Lillich assisting the excavations as volunteers. The specimens are part of the collection of the Swiss Sauriermuseum Aathal. At first they were considered Stegosaurus exemplars. In 2001, initially only "Moritz" and "Lilly" were reclassified as cf. Hesperosaurus mjosi. In 2010, "Victoria" was by Nicolai Christiansen e.a. referred to Hesperosaurus mjosi.
Carpenter had originally concluded that Hesperosaurus was a rather basal stegosaur. However, Susannah Maidment and colleagues in 2008 published a more extensive phylogenetic study in which it was recovered as a derived form, closely related to Stegosaurus and Wuerhosaurus. They proposed that Hesperosaurus should be considered a species of Stegosaurus, with Hesperosaurus mjosi becoming Stegosaurus mjosi; at the same time Wuerhosaurus was renamed into a Stegosaurus homheni. This has proven to be controversial. In biology the concept "genus" is not operationalised, i.e. generally no operational definition is given indicating in which way it could be empirically established whether a certain species belongs to a certain genus. Carpenter, considering the problem more of a philosophical than a scientific nature, in 2010 rejected the synonymy of Hesperosaurus with Stegosaurus stating that in his opinion Hesperosaurus was sufficiently different from Stegosaurus to be named a separate genus. Christiansen e.a. in 2010 judged likewise.
Hesperosaurus is a large stegosaurid. In 2010, Gregory S. Paul estimated its length at 6.5 metres, the weight at 3.5 tonnes.
In 2001 Carpenter provided a diagnosis. Due to his conclusion that Hesperosaurus were rather basal, in it many comparisons were made with the basalmost known stegosaurian Huayangosaurus, that lost their relevance once it became clear that the phylogenetic position was in fact quite derived. In 2008 Maidment indicated three autapomorphies: the possession of eleven back vertebrae; the forth sacral not being fused to the sacrum; back plates that are longer (from front to rear) than tall. Maidment also provided some traits in which Hesperosaurus was more basal than Stegosaurus armatus. In the atlas, even in adult specimens the neural arches are not fused to the intercentrum. The postzygapophyses, the rear joint processes, of the rear neck vertebrae do not prominently protrude upwards. In the back vertebrae, the neural arches, above the level of the neural canal, are not especially lengthened to above. At the hip region ossified tendons are present. The ribs are expanded at their lower ends. The neural spines of the tail vertebrae are not bifurcated. The lower end of the pubic bone is expanded (spoon-shaped in side view). To Carpenter this differential diagnosis was problematic because he considered Stegosaurus armatus, the type species of Stegosaurus, a nomen dubium and rejected Maidment's lumping of all North-American Stegosaurus material into a single species, the great variability of which making it difficult to establish any differences with Hesperosaurus. He considered Stegosaurus stenops, the name historically given to several well-preserved specimens, a separate species and provided a new differential diagnosis of Hesperosaurus compared to S. stenops. The antorbital fenestra is large instead of very small. The maxilla is short and deep, half as tall as long, instead of having a height a third of the length. The basisphenoid of the lower braincase is short instead of long. Thirteen neck vertebrae are present instead of ten. Thirteen dorsal (back) vertebrae are present instead of seventeen. The middle dorsals have a basal form in possessing a low neural arch rather than a high one. The cervical ribs have expanded lower ends. In the front tail vertebrae, the tops of the neural spines are rounded instead of bifurcated. The front edge of the shoulderblade is indented instead of running parallel to the rear edge. The front blade of the ilium diverges strongly sideways instead of weakly. The rear blade of the ilium has a knob-shaped expansion at the rear end. The front end of the prepubic process has an upward expansion. The plates of the hip and tail base are oval and low instead of high and triangular.
The various published descriptions of Hesperosaurus contradict each other because of changes and differences in interpretation. Originally, Carpenter reconstructed the disarticulated skull elements into a very convex head, modelling it on the shape of Huayangosaurus. The discrepancies in the vertebral count are caused by applying different criteria to the problem whether (and which) cervicodorsal vertebrae should be considered part of the neck or the back. The exact shape of the plates is hard to determine due to erosion. Paul considered the neck plates to be low, but the back plates as taller. Also the Aathal specimens are as yet undescribed. A complete description of the entire material is in preparation by Octávio Mateus.
The number of maxillary teeth were twenty per side, lower than the number with Stegosaurus. Carpenter described them as similar to the teeth of Stegosaurus, though somewhat larger. Peter Malcolm Galton in 2007 established some differences: there are rough vertical ridges present on the upper part of the crown, one per denticle; the fine grooves on the tooth surface are weakly developed.
Osteoderms and skin impressionsEdit
Carpenter in 2001 identified ten plates as part of the holotype. He described them as long and low. Asymmetrical bases would indicate that they ran in two rows. The end of the tail bore a "thagomizer" of two pairs of spikes, the front pair being thicker, the rear pair thinner and more horizontally directed to behind.
In 2012, an histological study concluded that these osteoderms, skin ossifications, of Hesperosaurus are essentially identical in structure to those of Stegosaurus. CAT-scans showed that the plates have thin but dense outer walls, filled with thick spongy bone. The bone shows signs of having been remodelled during a metaplastic growth process. Extensive long and wide arterial canals were visible. The spikes have thicker walls and the hollows in the spongy interior are smaller. A single large blood vessel ran along the longitudinal axis of the spike.
In 2010, a study was published on the soft parts visible with the "Victoria" specimen. It preserves both true impressions of the skin into the surrounding sediment, and natural casts, where the spaces left behind by the rotting of the soft body parts have been filled in with sediment. Additionally on some areas a black layer is present, possibly consisting of organic remains or bacterial mats. A part of the lower trunk flank shows rows of small hexagonal, non-overlapping, convex scales, two to seven millimetres in diameter. Higher on the flank two rosette structures are visible with larger central scales, one being twenty by ten millimetres in size, the other ten by eight millimetres. Apart from the scales, an impression of the lower side of a back plate has been found, covering about two hundred square centimetres. This shows no scales but a smooth surface with low parallel vertical ridges. As it is a true impression, with the life animal grooves would have been present. These grooves would have been about half a millimetre deep and stood about two millimetres apart. The impression probably represented the horn sheath of the plate, as would be confirmed by vertical traces of veins. It is the first direct proof of such sheaths with any stegosaurian. The study considered the presence of a sheath to be a strong indication that the plate had primarily a defensive function, as a horn layer would have strengthened the plate as a whole and provided it with sharp cutting edges. Also the display function would have been reinforced, because the sheath would have increased the visible surface and such horn structures are often brightly coloured. Thermoregulation on the other hand, another often assumed rôle of the plates, would have been hampered by an extra insulating layer and the smoothness of the surface, but cannot be entirely ruled out as extant cattle and ducks use horns and beaks to dump excess heat despite the horn covering.