Thyreophora Suborder: The Spiked and Plated Dinosaurs

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 23rd September 2023

thyreophora suborder

Despite being extinct for millions of years, dinosaurs are still some of the world’s most famous animals for several reasons, especially their size and strength.

Although many species and groups of the Dinosauria superorder, one of the most well-known was the Thyreophora suborder.

These dinosaurs were known for their remarkable armor-like features.

With many formidable spikes, plates, and bony structures adorning their bodies, these unique creatures evolved fascinating defense mechanisms that set them apart from other dinosaurs.

Although the classification of this group was a collective effort of several paleontologists, Othniel Charles Marsh was one of the key figures in the study and development of armored dinosaurs and the concept of Thyreophora.

He is credited with describing and naming many important dinosaur taxa, including members of the Thyreophora group.

Stegosaurus | Kitti Kahotong via Getty Images

While Marsh’s work laid the foundation for understanding Thyreophora, subsequent paleontologists have significantly contributed to refining the classification and identifying new species within this suborder.

Derived from the Greek words thyreos meaning shield, and phoros meaning bearer, Thyreophora encompasses a diverse assemblage of herbivorous dinosaurs that roamed the Earth during the Mesozoic Era, specifically during the Late Triassic to Late Cretaceous periods.

Although herbivorous, many dinosaurs under this suborder were enormous, weighing thousands of pounds and spanning over 30 feet.

Paleontologists have gotten a complete grasp of these dinosaurs, their anatomy, and their way of life by studying the skeletal remains and fossilized impressions.

This article focuses on shedding more light on the Thyreophora suborder, further classifications, features, and famous dinosaurs that fall under the suborder.

Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Plush Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Plush Collection

Characteristics that Define the Thyreophora Suborder

Although the Thyreophora suborder is characterized by its distinctive body armor, which served as a defense against potential predators, these dinosaurs also had several other features that made them unique.

1. Body Armor

Crocodile osteoderms | ascione via Getty Images

A network of bone structures called osteoderms formed the center of the Thyreophora body armor.

Osteoderms are specialized dermal bones that grow inside the skin and meld together to provide a barrier of defense.

To protect the dinosaur from predator assaults, these bones are often placed in rows or plates throughout its body.

The body armor modifications of Thyreophora dinosaurs were astounding.

Several of them had rows of pointed spikes or knobs that protruded from their armor to act as additional predator deterrents.

Some had complex bone arrangements or horns on their heads, which improved their skills for both show and defense.

The diversity of these armor designs showed how adaptable and evolutionary experimentation the Thyreophora suborder was.

2. Quadrupedal Stance

Quadrupedal Stances | diane555 via Getty Images

Thyreophora dinosaurs were primarily quadrupedal, meaning they walked on all fours.

The body armor and other defensive structures, such as spikes, horns, and dermal plates, that characterized Thyreophora dinosaurs were often heavy and required a stable base.

The quadrupedal stance provided a broader and more stable support system, allowing them to bear the weight of their armor without compromising their balance.

This stability was crucial for their survival, especially during confrontations with predators or when maneuvering through challenging terrains.

3. Herbivorous Diet

Searching for Food | Pong Z via Getty Images

Thyreophora dinosaurs exclusively fed on plant material, including leaves, ferns, cycads, conifers, and other vegetation available in their respective habitats.

Their diet likely varied based on the specific species, geographic location, and prevailing flora during their time.

They typically possessed teeth specialized for cropping and processing plant matter rather than tearing flesh.

The teeth were usually leaf-shaped or spatulate, with ridges or serrations for efficient plant grinding and shearing.

They also had jaws that moved and were built differently for herbivory.

Their lower jaws had a joint resembling a hinge and allowed for little lateral mobility, making it easier to grind and chew plant matter.

4. Size and Diversity

Three armored Scutellosaurus dinosaurs | CoreyFord via Getty Images

The Thyreophora suborder exhibited a range of size and diversity, showcasing the remarkable evolutionary adaptability within this group of herbivorous dinosaurs.

Several smaller to medium-sized species occupied diverse ecological niches within the Thyreophora suborder.

These dinosaurs ranged in size from approximately 3-13 feet in length.

On the other hand, some species reached up to 30 to 33 feet and weighed several tons.

This diversity in size allowed Thyreophora dinosaurs to occupy different ecological niches and adapt to various environments.

5. Skeletal Modifications

Ankylosaurus dinosaurus silhouette, with full skeleton | leonello via Getty Images

Thyreophora dinosaurs possessed a range of skeletal modifications that enhanced their defensive capabilities.

These adaptations included thickened skulls and expanded rib cages.

Such skeletal features helped shield vital organs and support the overall structure of their bodies.

In some species, specialized osteoderms formed a continuous armor-like shield, providing exceptional defense against attackers.

Many Thyreophora species also had enlarged neural spines that were elongated bony projections from the vertebrae.

These neural spines provided attachment points for muscles and ligaments, giving the dinosaur additional support and stability.

Some species also possessed osteoderm spikes or horns protruding from the body armor, further enhancing their defensive capabilities.

Major Organism Groups of the Thyreophora Suborder

Characterized by their distinctive body armor and defensive adaptations, Thyreophora can be classified into several major organism groups.

Each group offers a fascinating peek into the prehistoric world of armored dinosaurs by showcasing distinctive traits and evolutionary advances.

1. Stegosauria

3D model Stegosaurus | Geerati via Getty Images

Stegosauria is a fascinating group of herbivorous dinosaurs belonging to the Thyreophora suborder.

These dinosaurs, which lived during the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods, are renowned for their distinctive row of upright plates along their backs and the formidable array of spikes on their tails.

These spikes were called thagomizers, a term coined by cartoonist Gary Larson and later adopted by paleontologists.

The spikes were extensions of the vertebrae and were believed to serve as a formidable defensive weapon against predators.

The dinosaurs under this group were quadrupedal, meaning they walked on all fours.

Stegosaur skulls were relatively small compared to the rest of their bodies and featured a beak-like snout.

However, Stegosaurs had a limited ability to chew due to the lack of complex jaw movements, so they likely relied on gastroliths (stomach stones) to aid in the digestion of plant matter.

2. Ankylosauria

Ankylosaurus dinosaur | leonello via Getty Images

Like other members of the Thyreophora suborder, the Ankylosauria group is known for its extensive body armor.

Members of this group possessed a complex arrangement of bony dermal plates and osteoderms embedded in their skin.

These plates formed a solid shield on their backs and flanks, protecting them from attacks alongside their tail clubs.

Moreover, the skulls of ankylosaurs were distinctive, with a broad, short snout and a low cranial profile.

Certain ankylosaurids possessed spikes or horns sticking out of their heads, which may have been employed for intraspecific conflict or display.

Their teeth were adapted for grinding plant material, featuring flattened and leaf-shaped crowns with serrated edges.

The dental adaptations allowed them to process vegetation.

3. Nodosauridae

Sauropelta dinosaur | Elenarts108 via Getty Images

Nodosauridae is a family of armored dinosaurs that belonged to the Thyreophora suborder.

These dinosaurs lived during the Late Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, approximately 170 to 66 million years ago.

Despite their formidable appearance, nodosaurids were not as heavily armored as their relatives, the ankylosaurids.

However, they still possessed an impressive array of defensive features.

Unlike the ankylosaurids, nodosaurids did not have tail clubs. Instead, they relied primarily on their body armor for defense.

Predators found it challenging to inflict lethal wounds, due to the boney osteoderms and spikes acting as deterrents.

Like other members of the Thyreophora suborder, these dinosaurs were herbivores with beak-like jaws and rows of tiny teeth at the front of their mouths.

These teeth were adapted for cropping and nipping vegetation rather than grinding or chewing.

4. Polacanthidae

Gargoyleosaurus dinosaur | Warpaintcobra via Getty Images

Dinosaurs under the Polacanthidae group existed approximately 140 to 125 million years ago in the Early Cretaceous period.

Like other dinosaurs under the Thyreophora suborder, these dinosaurs had body armor and spikes to protect them.

Polacanthidae dinosaurs were generally medium-sized armored dinosaurs with lengths ranging from 10 to 20 feet.

Their body shape was relatively low and compact compared to other Thyreophora groups.

Their diet consisted of ferns, cycads, and other low-growing plants.

5. Scelidosauridae

Scelidosaurus | Disneysaurus via Dinopedia Fandom

Scelidosaurids were among the earliest known members of the Thyreophora suborder and played an essential role in the evolution of armored dinosaurs.

These dinosaurs were characterized by their unique body armor, which differed from the more advanced forms seen in later Thyreophora groups.

Instead of large plates or extensive clusters of osteoderms, scelidosaurids had smaller, scattered bony scutes embedded in their skin.

Scelidosaurids were generally smaller in size compared to their later armored relatives.

Their skulls were also small and had a short, triangular snout.

Notable Examples of Organisms within the Thyreophora Suborder

1. Ankylosaurus

Ankylosaurus in the forest | Orla via Getty Images

One of the most prominent members of the Thyreophora suborder, the Ankylosaurus magniventris, means “great-bellied fused lizard” and existed during the Late Cretaceous period, approximately 68 to 66 million years ago.

Ankylosaurus magniventris had a sophisticated armor arrangement comprising large bony plates and small, bead-like osteoderms tightly interlocked.

This dinosaur also had a tail club, and its snout had a beak-like mouth and rows of leaf-shaped teeth specialized for cropping plant material.

Fossils of Ankylosaurus magniventris have been primarily discovered in North America, particularly in regions such as Montana, Wyoming, and Alberta, Canada.

These fossils have provided paleontologists invaluable insights into this dinosaur’s anatomy, behavior, and evolutionary adaptations.

2. Euoplocephalus

Euoplocephalus dinosaur | Elenarts108 via Getty Images

Euoplocephalus tutus was a relatively large dinosaur, measuring around 26 to 30 feet and weighing several tons.

It had a low, compact body with a wide stance, supported by robust and pillar-like limbs.

This dinosaur’s body armor was composed of numerous polygonal plates embedded in the dinosaur’s skin.

These plates were interlocked and provided a solid defense against potential threats.

Some plates featured small spikes or knobs, further enhancing their protection.

Euoplocephalus would have fed on low-lying plants as an herbivorous dinosaur, processing plant materials with the help of its beak and specialized teeth.

It most likely lived in wooded areas and may have moved in herds to increase its security from predators.

3. Nodosaurus

Nodosaurus Textilis | Jack Wood via Prehistoric Wiki Fandom

Nodosaurus textilis was first discovered in the late 19th century in North America, specifically in regions now part of Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana.

The dinosaur was described and named by paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh in 1889.

Nodosaurus belongs to the family Nodosauridae, a subgroup within the Thyreophora suborder.

Nodosaurus textilis was a medium-sized dinosaur, measuring around 15 to 20 feet, with a robust and heavily built body.

Like other members of the Thyreophora suborder, these dinosaurs were also covered in armor and spikes.

Feeding Strategies and Behavior of the Thyreophora Suborder

Feeding Strategies

Cycad | Breecedownunder via Getty Images

The Thyreophora suborder was predominantly herbivorous, feeding on different plants.

Fossil evidence and dental analysis have provided insights into their dietary preferences.

Also, examination of tooth morphology suggests that they were adapted to grinding and slicing fibrous plant matter, suggesting a diet rich in vegetation such as ferns, cycads, conifers, and low-growing plants.

Because of the size and arrangement of their teeth, their jaws were well-suited for shearing and cropping vegetation. 

Dinosaurs belonging to the Thyreophora suborder’s skeletal architecture, bite marks on preserved plants, and trackway analyses may all be used to infer information concerning their dietary habits.

They are thought to have used both browsing and grazing techniques.

Several ancient species’ stomach regions include gastroliths, indicating that these herbivores relied on this mechanism to process plant material.

As large herbivores, they contributed to the dispersal of seeds, shaping vegetation communities, and providing sustenance to carnivorous dinosaurs.

Additionally, their feeding behaviors and selective grazing could have influenced the evolution of plant species during this period.


Stegosaurus skeleton | coldsnowstorm via Getty Images

Thyreophora’s social connections with one another were essential to their survival and reproduction.

Due to the incompleteness of the fossil record, which limits direct evidence of their behavior, researchers have relied on several indirect markers to understand their social dynamics.

Although their armor was used for defense, it was also in visual displays to attract mates, assert dominance, or intimidate rivals within their social groups.

The Thyreophora suborder’s social structure and herding tendencies remain speculative due to the scarcity of fossil evidence directly addressing this aspect.

However, considering their defensive adaptations and some behavioral analogies with modern-day social herbivores, it is plausible that at least some Thyreophora engaged in herding behavior.

Paleobiogeography of the Thyreophora Suborder

Supercontinents Laurasia and Gondwana | Ianm35 via Getty Images

The Thyreophora suborder emerged during the Jurassic period and thrived until the end of the Cretaceous period, over 100 million years.

During the Early Jurassic, these dinosaurs primarily inhabited regions that would later become part of Laurasia, the supercontinent that included present-day North America, Europe, and Asia.

Fossils from this period have been discovered in regions such as China, England, and the western United States.

The stegosaurs and early ankylosaurs were the dominant groups during this era.

Their distribution in this region flourished even in the Middle Jurassic period, and they spread across additional areas, including parts of Africa and South America.

During the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous, Pangaea began to break apart, leading to the formation of separate land masses.

This fragmentation resulted in the development of distinct geographic regions that influenced the distribution and diversification of thyreophorans.

As the continents separated, opportunities for isolation and allopatric speciation increased, possibly contributing to the emergence of unique lineages within the Thyreophora suborder.

Gondwana, the southern landmass that included South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia, witnessed the emergence of unique evolutionary lineages of armored dinosaurs.

In the area, stegosaurs and early ankylosaurs were present during the Early Cretaceous (145 to 100 million years ago).

Fossil evidence has been uncovered in various regions, such as Brazil, India, and Madagascar.

These findings suggest that the Thyreophora suborder was widespread and well-established in Gondwana. 

During the Late Cretaceous (100 to 66 million years ago), the continents continued to drift apart, influencing the distribution of dinosaurs.

Ankylosaurs and stegosaurs diversified further in North America and Asia, with notable fossil discoveries in Mongolia, China, and Canada.

Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Ankylosaurus Concept

The emergence of new genera, such as Ankylosaurus and Euoplocephalus, contributed to the Thyreophora suborder’s evolutionary success and adaptability.

Apart from the creation of separate continents, other reasons for the distribution of these dinosaurs include climatic changes and variations in vegetation types. 

For instance, the presence of dinosaurs like stegosaurs and ankylosaurs in North America suggests the availability of abundant vegetation, which would have supported their dietary needs.

The arid regions of Asia may have favored the evolution of ankylosaurs with specialized adaptations for water conservation.

These environmental factors, tectonic events, and sea-level fluctuations shaped the paleobiogeography and evolutionary trajectory of the Thyreophora suborder.

Some Thyreophora groups likely underwent dispersal events, crossing barriers such as shallow seas or land bridges.

These dispersals played a significant role in the spread of these dinosaurs to new regions, contributing to their overall diversity.

The Thyreophora suborder coexisted and interacted with various other dinosaur groups throughout their existence.

For instance, in North America during the Late Cretaceous, ankylosaurs shared their environment with tyrannosaurs, ceratopsians, and hadrosaurs.

These interactions shaped the ecological dynamics of the time, with Thyreophora playing notable roles in predator-prey relationships and ecosystem structuring.

Their herbivorous diets also played significant roles in the evolution and development of plant species across the world.

Studying their distribution patterns provides invaluable insights into their evolutionary history, interactions with other dinosaurs, and the geological events that shaped our planet.

As paleontological discoveries continue to uncover new fossils and refine our understanding of the past, the paleobiogeography of the Thyreophora suborder remains an ever-evolving field of study.


Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top