Hypsibema: Unveiling the Secrets of a Late Cretaceous Herbivore

Delving into the world of dinosaurs, you quickly realize how little we still know about some of them. Hypsibema is one such dino which is lesser known, but certainly not less intriguing. Discovered in the 19th century, this herbivorous Ornithopod offers a unique glimpse into the dinosaurs inhabiting what is today the Eastern USA.

Hypsibema Key Facts

Meaning of nameHigh-step (type name means: With a Fat Tail)
Type SpeciesHypsibema crassicauda
When it Lived83.6 to 72.1 MYA
PeriodLate Cretaceous
Length30.0 to 56.0 feet
HeightApproximately 16.0 feet
Weight17.0 to 20.0 tons
MobilityMoved on two legs
First Discovery1869 by Washington Carruthers Kerr
Described by1869 by Edward Drinker Cope
HolotypeUSNM 7189
Location of first findSampson County, North Carolina

Hypsibema Origins, Taxonomy and Timeline

Hypsibema is derived from the Greek words ‘hypsi’ (high) and ‘bema’ (step). It was given this name by Edward Drinker Cope when he described the new species, as he thought it walked in a particular way on its tiptoes. This nomenclature not only captures the essence of its physical attributes but also adds a layer of mystique to its identity.

This dinosaur is categorized within the Ornithopod group. This classification places it among a diverse family of herbivorous dinosaurs known for their bipedal mobility and distinctive jaw structures. As for its species, Hypsibema crassicauda is the type species and H. missouriensis is a possible second species as well as the state fossil of Missouri.

The timeline of this herbivore takes place in the longest age of the Late Cretaceous Period, the Campanian. This time frame, extending from 83.6 to 72.1 million years ago, situates Hypsibema in a period of profound geological and biological transformations.

Discovery & Fossil Evidence

The journey of Hypsibema’s discovery is as fascinating as the dinosaur itself. The type species was first unearthed in 1869 in Sampson County, North Carolina. This discovery was made by Washington Carruthers Kerr, the state geologist of North Carolina at the time. Edward Drinker Cope–a name synonymous with early American paleontology–was responsible for describing this species. 

A close-up photograph of a fossilized vertebra belonging to Hypsibema crassicauda, displayed in a museum exhibit. The vertebra, encased in a protective display case, showcases a rugged, textured surface, indicating its ancient origins. The lighting highlights the intricate details of the fossil, making the grooves and contours visible.
Geekgecko, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The initial discovery included a collection of bones – a caudal vertebra, a metatarsal, and fragments of femur. Interestingly, these femoral fragments were initially misidentified. It was later understood that they belonged to a Tyrannosauroid similar to Dryptosaurus. The caudal vertebra was designated as the lectotype (the specimen responsible for bearing the name of the species) and gave the species its specific name, ‘crassicauda’, which translates to ‘with a fat tail’ in Latin,.

Hypsibema missouriensis was initially classified as Parrosaurus in 1945 but it was reclassified by Donald Baird and Jack Horner in 1979 and has since been acknowledged as the official state dinosaur of Missouri.

Recent discoveries have significantly expanded our knowledge of Hypsibema missouriensis. In 2011, paleontologist Guy Darrough unearthed the remains of a juvenile at the Chronister site in Missouri, providing a rare glimpse into the early life stages of these dinosaurs. Between 2016 and 2017, four new specimens were discovered. These excavations were conducted by Darrough and staff from the Field Museum of Natural History, including Peter Makovicky, and led to a significant addition to the fossil records of H. missouriensis.

The adult specimens from these recent finds were transported to the Field Museum, while the juvenile found its new home at the Sainte Genevieve Museum Learning Center in Ste. Genevieve. Here, Darrough served as curator and oversaw the development of a new exhibit dedicated to this juvenile dinosaur. These finds not only contribute to the scientific community’s understanding of H. missouriensis but also offer the public an opportunity to connect with this ancient creature, bridging the gap between science and community engagement.

Hypsibema Size and Description

When we delve into the world of Hypsibema, particularly its subspecies H. missouriensis, we uncover a creature of remarkable stature and intriguing physical characteristics. This species, better understood than the type species due to more comprehensive fossil remains, offers a clearer picture of what Hypsibema might have looked like.

Size and Weight of Hypsibema missouriensis

The size and weight of H. missouriensis are truly impressive. This dinosaur is estimated to have weighed between 3.0 to 4.0 tons, roughly equivalent to the weight of a modern elephant. In terms of height, it stood about 11.0 feet tall at its back, imposing and majestic. It stretched approximately 30.0 to 35.0 feet from head to tail. 

A size comparison chart depicting the dinosaur Hypsibema missouriensis (size uncertain) alongside a human figure. The dinosaur is illustrated in a bright orange silhouette, highlighting its massive size, which reaches up to 10 meters in length. The human figure, shown in blue, provides a clear scale reference, standing significantly smaller next to the enormous Hypsibema missouriensis.
Slate Weasel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These dimensions not only give us a sense of the physical presence of H. missouriensis but also hint at its lifestyle. The size would have been advantageous for browsing high vegetation, while its weight suggests a robust and sturdy build that may have aided in defense against predators or in interactions within its own species. 

The Dinosaur in its Natural Habitat

This resident of the Late Cretaceous Period lived in an era marked by diverse and changing landscapes. North America was split into two paleocontinents during this time–Laramidia to the west and Appalachia to the east. The climate of Appalachia during this time was likely warmer with lush vegetation providing ample food sources for this herbivore. The geography ranged from coastal plains to dense forests that would have offered varied habitats, each with its unique challenges and opportunities.

A depiction of the dinosaur Hypsibema missouriensis resting in a lush, green forest. The dinosaur is shown lying down, blending naturally into its woodland environment, surrounded by tall trees with thick trunks and abundant foliage.

As an herbivore, Hypsibema’s diet primarily consisted of the abundant plant life of its era. Its bipedal locomotion suggests a lifestyle that could have included foraging for food and possibly evading predators. Its approximately 1,000 small teeth were more serrated than those of other hadrosaurs. This adaptation suggests that the vegetation in its habitat was particularly coarse or tough and required more robust teeth for efficient feeding.

The impact of this North American dinosaur on its ecosystem could have been significant. As a large herbivore, it might have played a role in shaping the vegetation patterns of its habitat, influencing the overall landscape and the ecological dynamics of its time. The social behavior of Hypsibema, whether it was a solitary wanderer or a herd animal, remains a subject of interest and speculation among scientists.

Interesting Points about Hypsibema

Contemporary Dinosaurs

Hypsibema navigated a landscape teeming with both competition and opportunity. Picture this herbivorous gentle giant ambling through ancient forests, its long neck reaching for the choicest leaves. Nearby, Paronychodon, smaller and more elusive, scurried in the underbrush. These little carnivores were no bigger than a modern wolf and were hardly a threat to the massive Hypsibema. While the Hypsibema peacefully munched on vegetation, Paronychodon might have been on the lookout for smaller prey or scavenging opportunities, always mindful of the larger dinosaur’s movements.

Centrosaurus was a horned dinosaur roughly the same size as our Hypsibema and could have been both a neighbor and a rival. These two giants might have faced off, perhaps not in direct combat but in a silent struggle for survival, each guarding their territory and resources. The formidable horns and frill of Centrosaurus might have seemed an intimidating figure to the more peaceful Hypsibema, yet their coexistence was a delicate balance of distance and respect.

Then there was Edmontosaurus, a fellow herbivore and perhaps the closest to Hypsibema in lifestyle and diet. These two giants shared the same size class and could have been seen as competitors among the ferns and cycads, perhaps crossing paths at a favorite watering hole. In this ancient world, Hypsibema’s story was one of quiet coexistence, a testament to the diverse and intricate web of life that thrived millions of years ago.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was it first discovered?

It was first discovered in 1869 in Sampson County, North Carolina by Washington Carruthers Kerr.

What type of dinosaur is it?

Hypsibema is classified as an Ornithopod–a group of herbivorous and mostly bipedal dinosaurs.

What period did it live in?

This dinosaur lived during the Late Cretaceous Period, from about 83.6 to 72.1 million years ago.

What do we know about its diet?

As an herbivore, Hypsibema primarily fed on the vegetation available during the Late Cretaceous Period. Its serrated teeth suggest a tougher diet than its relatives.

Are there many fossils of this dinosaur?

Fossil evidence is limited but ongoing research may uncover more. Recent discoveries of H. missouriensis are expanding our knowledge on this dinosaur to this day.


The information in this article is based on various sources, drawing on scientific research, fossil evidence, and expert analysis. The aim is to provide a comprehensive and accurate overview of Hypsibema. However, please be aware that our understanding of dinosaurs and their world is constantly evolving as new discoveries are made.

This article was last fact checked: Joey Arboleda, 02-21-2023

Featured Image Credit: Missouri Department of Natural Resources