Overview of Badlands National Park

I am doing this in part just to refresh my memory.  It is slightly rough being a seasonal ranger, cramming your head full of stuff that you will only remember clearly for 6 months and after which time, you will go find another place with just as complex informationwith which to stuff your head.  The funny thing about park rangers is that, in general, they are usually not long standing students of what they interpret.  I didn’t know a measurable amount about conquistadors, let alone a specific one like de Soto, until the winter of ’06-’07.  I had never heard of an Augustus Saint-Gaudens, nor his associates, or known how a bronze statue came to be.  While not an expert on any of these subjects, being a park ranger lends a pretty good hand towards some type of working knowledge that has to be translated and transmitted to the general public.

So what does this have to do with anything?  Well, interpreters, or park rangers, need to keep current and brushed up on information and this is sometimes a daunting task. It would be all the more essential if the general public actually fact-checked, or even sometimes listened well, but it doesn’t happen often.  I know there have been times that I have unintentially misled, and unfortunately, there are also times where popular opinion overrides facts and truth.  Try telling someone that hates snakes to their core that rattlesnakes aren’t after them.  Or try explaining that what appears to be a sabertoothed cat isn’t really a cat, it’s more related to the dog family, and that it isn’t what you see on the movie, Ice Age…

So, in light of all that, here is my written attempt at a brush-up:

I think it must be the greatest cemetery in the world for Eocene mammalia…You can have no idea how much my mind has become inflamed upon this subject.  Night after night, I dream of strange forms: Eocene crania with recent eyes in them.  Dr. Joseph Leidy

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

I just found that quote, sitting quite prominently on a brochure with the heading “The Fossil Hunters” on the top.  Too bad I didn’t find that last year…but I get to do it all over again.  So there might be a couple questions that spring to the head immediately after reading that quote and then a few more after looking at the picture.  I could certainly see someone’s confused expression after saying Eocene out loud, so that is where we will start:

Eocene mammals

Within the Paleogene period, three epochs are defined: the Paleocene, Eocene, and Oligocene.  I didn’t name them, so they don’t roll off my tongue and they don’t really carry too much meaning for me, since I am not a paleontologist.  But the most important thing to note here is that the Eocene started about 55 million years ago and ended about 33 million years ago, give or take a few [hundred thousand].  At the start was what environmentalists fear most today, it appears:  an extremely warm period in Earth’s history…aka Global Warming.  But all evolutional debates aside, this was pretty much the time when families of animals that we are familiar with came onto the North American continent: animals such as deer, primates and hoofed animals.  There were some that would seem surprising, such as camels and horses, since neither existed on this continent without the aid of humans in the last 500 years.  The general size of all these animals would also be surprising.  Most were tiny.  For example, the ‘deer’ [more like a distant predecesor with little fangs] was about the size of a collie.  One of the first relatives of the dog is about the size of a small housecat and most likely dwelled in a burrow.  Why the small sizes?  Heat.  Smaller body types can deal with extreme heat better, if you are a mammal, I guess. 

To find some of the more famous fossils found in the Badlands, you would have to look into the Oligocene epoch, starting and ending at 33 to 23 million years ago.  From this time, we get the titanothere, a rather large relative of the rhinoceras with a forked horn.  There was also the Mesohippus, the three-toed step in the line of horse evolution, but you couldn’t ride this one; small size was still a common theme.  Another fun fuanal member is Hyaenodon, a creature that resembled the current hyena, but not actually a relative.  You wouldn’t get your arm back in one piece from this creature–his jaw power was probably 1000 lbs per square inch!  Oddly enough, in South Dakota, there were alligators at this time.  They didn’t do a large amount of changing over the years, but their size was restricted due to their habitat: small ponds scattered around a drying and cooling shrubby plain.  Nimravid is also present.  Probably a stalking hunter of the tiny horses, this creature is appropriately called a ‘false-sabertooth’.  Sabertooths lived during more recent ice ages.

So there is a list of names and creatures that are difficult for us to imagine without relating them improperly to creatures we find today.  But the diversity and density of these fossils drew paleontologists to a place where few would want to work without the aid of modern comforts.  As a matter of fact, the French christened the place with its name; Badlands comes from the French phrase ‘bad lands to travel across’.  The terrain is unstable, the heat and cold are extreme, and when it rains, the misery is manifested in ubiquitous mud that won’t let feet free.  But that didn’t keep Alexander Culbertson and Hiram Prout from exploring the place and discovering the fossil treasure trove.  In hindsight, the Badlands are also nicknamed ‘the birthplace of vertebrate paleontology’ and the list of discoveries is quite long. 

It is hard to get a picture of what life was like back then by just listing names.  There is one clear example in the park that illustrates it well.

The Big Pig Dig

What is better sounding than that?? Officially, this site is called the ‘Pig Wallow Site’, but the nickname pops out of the mouth better and there are a few inaccuracies in the title anyway.  This dig, now closed and exhausted of collectable fossils, was started amazingly enough by two visitors of the honest and virtuous type.  A day after spotting relatively large vertebrae, they reported the find to the Visitor Center.  This was back in 1993 and the dig finished its final excavations in 2008 with only a year of no funding and no work.  Though there is a backlog on the specimins, they number somewhere in the tens of thousands, perhaps 30,000.  These fossils paint an amazing and very gruesome picture of what life could be like 34 million years ago.  There are no whole skeletons, just shattered parts.  It is as if you places thousands of animals into a blender and added mud.  Tooth marks are present on some; others are smashed into other just as unfortunate individuals.  The scene is comparable to an African watering hole, where many animals, driven by thrist, came and once rehydrated, preyed upon parched unluckies.  This watering hole was most likely busy and the mud churned up by large feet claimed more victims, which in turn lured carnivores and scavangers, sometimes trapping them as well.  So the name ‘Pig Wallow’ could perhaps apply in a sense, but it was not recreational wallowing.  The ‘pig’ in this case was a distant, distant relative that could bulldoze a hole in your livingroom wall–nothing to mess with.  His large size didn’t translate into a large brain and he would fall victim to the mud after going in to far to chew on a corpse.  ‘Pig’ in another sense didn’t apply at first.  The vertebrae found by the visitors wasn’t actually a pig, but a relative of the rhinoceras, a hyracodon.  Luckily, someone did eventually find a pig, so all worked out in the end.  One of the mysteries of the place is why the MOST common fossil found in the park is not found in this small area.  The oreodont is a small sheep-cow-pig-camel type creature that ran in large herds, but for some reason, it had brains large enough that it didn’t go to that watering hole…

So there is one question slightly answered, but the other is how and why do the Badlands look like they do?  And another would pertain to the vast amount of fossils found within them.  Well, here it goes:

Formation and deformation of the Badlands

Brule formation of the Badlands

Brule formation of the Badlands

The Badlands have many descriptions and I think my favorite is that they look like a lunar landscape, like you have landed on the moon and are waiting for an astronaut to give you a tour.  The moon actually has less topography comparatively.  The Badlands form what is called a ‘wall’ or the ‘wall’, from which the town of Wall, SD gets its name.  This wall is a product of the Badlands formations eroding and creating up to a 500ft difference in the upper and lower prairies.  In some places, the vertical climb is impossible except to birds and bighorn sheep.  In others, the difference is slight and not as life threatening. 

Part of wall as seen from Door Trail

Part of wall as seen from Door Trail

You can see why the French furtrappers would be so angry having to cross this stuff.  Not only is it not stable, but you can be unlucky enough to find sections like this one where there is a large wall and once you are over that, there is yet another steep dropoff [not visible in the picture].  If you look carefully at the picture, you can see some layers visible in the Wall.  These layers give a clue to how formation happened.  The alternations between red and tan indicate some type of reoccuring shift between environments, in this case, between dry periods and colossal floods.  The red, being oxidized hematite, was caused by the availability of oxygen to reach the iron below ground.  This would be a more stable environment supporting not only the plants, but animals as well.  The tan layers are the flood layers, buried too quickly for any iron to oxidize.  These tan layers also contain rocks and pebbles from other places, like the Black Hills to the west and the Rockies to the farther west, washed from these places and deposited over vast distances.  Using these rocks, geologists can map the paths of rivers and stream beds millions of years ago, judging the size of them based on the size of stones deposited.  Some can get fairly sizable, as is visible on the Castle Trail.

Medicine Root rocks on Castle Trail

Medicine Root rocks on Castle Trail

So flooding and periods of stablity created the layers, but what makes the Badlands look like they do?  Erosion.  Basically, the same forces that built the Badlands are almost just as dramatically taking them down.  The estimated amount of erosion per year is 1 inch with the average rainfall of 16 inches.  Last year was a rather wet year, with above 20 inches of precipitation, so the erosional rate was probably a bit more.  The wind also adds its artistic hand at sculpting dramatic pointy peaks. 

Formation towering over sod tables

Formation towering over sod tables

Of course, this sediment has to go somewhere once it is washed away, but of course, there are many places for it to go.  The ‘final destination’ is probably the Gulf of Mexico.  The nearest is visible in the above picture.  The sediment can stack up and stay put, as is exemplified by the sod tables, the short, flat-topped, teebox-looking things.  These were remnants of deposition that occurred 900 to 100 years ago and are filled with snail shells that are too young to be fossils.  For some reason, maybe to make explanations impossible and to drive visitors crazy, these tables were left while everything around it was washed away.  Mysteries abound in the Badlands. 

I think that is probably enough for one night.  Maybe some later posts will deal with the wildlife and different geological strata of the park.  For now, I’d like to stop with a picture that I hope to not see reenacted again this year.  I guess it is a common assumption that herbivores aren’t dangerous since all they eat is vegetation, but these things are not tame, not timid, and not gentle.  They are potential killers and it only takes a second…

Visitors dangerously close to Bison on Sage Creek Rim Road

Visitors dangerously close to Bison on Sage Creek Rim Road


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