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In comparison with modern land animals the adult was very large. Some scientists have estimated a length of 9 meters (30 ft). Another reconstruction suggests a significantly smaller size, at 6.25 m (20.5 ft) long, up to 1.5 m (5 ft) wide and about 1.7 m (5.5 ft) high at the hip. Ankylosaurus may have weighed over 6,000 kilograms (13,000 lb). The body shape was low-slung and quite wide. Ankylosaurus was quadrupedal, with the hind limbs longer than the forelimbs. Although its feet are still unknown to science, comparisons with other ankylosaurids suggest Ankylosaurus probably had five toes on each foot. The skull was low and triangular in shape, wider than it was long. The largest known skull measures 64.5 centimeters (25 in) long and 74.5 cm (29 in) wide. Like other ankylosaurs, Ankylosaurus was herbivorous, with small, leaf-shaped teeth suitable for cropping vegetation. These teeth were smaller, relative to the body size, than in any other ankylosaurid species. Ankylosaurus did not share the grinding tooth batteries of the contemporaneous ceratopsid and hadrosaurid dinosaurs, indicating that very little chewing occurred. Bones in the skull and other parts of the body were fused to increase their strength. The most obvious feature of Ankylosaurus is its armor, consisting of massive knobs and plates of bone, known as osteoderms, embedded in the skin. Osteoderms are also found in the skin of crocodiles, armadillos and some lizards. The bone was probably overlain by a tough, horny layer of keratin. These osteoderms ranged greatly in size, from wide, flat plates to small, round nodules. The plates were aligned in regular horizontal rows down the animal's neck, back, and hips, with the many smaller nodules protecting the areas between the large plates. Smaller plates may have been arranged on the limbs and tail. Compared to the slightly more ancient ankylosaurid Euoplocephalus, the plates of Ankylosaurus were smooth in texture, without the high keels found on the armor of the contemporaneous nodosaurid Edmontonia. A row of flat, triangular spikes may have protruded laterally along each side of the tail. Tough, rounded scales protected the top of the skull, while four large pyramidal horns projected outwards from its rear corners. The famous tail club of Ankylosaurus was also composed of several large osteoderms, which were fused to the last few tail vertebrae. It was heavy and supported by the last seven tail vertebrae, which interlocked to form a stiff rod at the base of the club. Thick tendons have been preserved, which attached to these vertebrae. These tendons were partially ossified (or bony) and were not very elastic, allowing great force to be transmitted to the end of the tail when it was swung. It seems to have been an active defensive weapon, capable of producing enough of a devastating impact to break the bones of an assailant. It has also been proposed that the tail club acted as a decoy for the head, although this idea is now largely discredited. Ankylosaurus magniventris existed between 68 to 65.5 million years ago, in the final Maastrichtian stage of the Late Cretaceous Period, and was one of the dinosaurs to survive until the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event. The type specimen is from the Hell Creek Formation of Montana, while other specimens have been found in the Lance Formation of Wyoming and the Scollard Formation in Alberta, Canada, all of which date to the end of the Cretaceous.

The Lance, Hell Creek and Scollard Formations represent different sections of the western shore of the shallow sea that divided western and eastern North America during the Cretaceous. They represent a broad coastal plain, extending westward from the seaway to the newly formed Rocky Mountains. These formations are composed largely of sandstone and mudstone, which have been attributed to floodplain environments. The Hell Creek is the best studied of these ancient environments. At the time, this region was subtropical, with a warm and humid climate. Many plant species were supported, primarily angiosperms, with less common conifers, ferns and cycads. An abundance of fossil leaves found at dozens of different sites indicates that the area was largely forested by small trees.

Fossils of Ankylosaurus are considerably rare in these sediments, compared to Edmontosaurus and the super-abundant Triceratops, which make up most of the large herbivore fauna. Another ankylosaur, Edmontonia, is also found in the same formations. However, Ankylosaurus and Edmontonia seem to have been separated both geographically and ecologically. Ankylosaurus had a wide muzzle, perhaps used for non-selective grazing and may have been limited to the upland regions, away from the coast, while Edmontonia had a narrower muzzle, indicating a more selective diet, and seems to have lived at lower elevations, closer to the coast.

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