Scientists initially assumed that the plates were folded down, covering the stegosaurus' back like the interlocked shields in 300. The next theory went from 0 to 60 in terms of insanity, as paleontologist W.H. Ballou wrote that these plates allowed the stegosaurus to fly, not unlike some giant lizard version of Dumbo.
Ballou's ideas did not come from the studies of any particular expert. He simply saw the plates and decided that they must have allowed for easy gliding. He also said that it was the ancestor of the modern bird, and that the plates eventually evolved into wings. (Which was wrong, but at the same time kinda prescient.) Author Edgar Rice Burroughs even utilized Ballou's depiction as the basis for the vicious creatures in his novel Tarzan At The Earth's Core (the Tarzan franchise had vine-swung over the shark long before this, apparently).
It's almost sad that Ballou was proven wrong, as a badass soaring stegosaurus would certainly improve the reptile's legacy more than its current status as a glorified prehistoric cow lizard.
Fun dinosaur fact -- the best stegosauruses are actually plushies.
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