Paleontology is, simply put, the study of ancient life. It is not exclusively the study of fossils; however, fossils are the primary resources used by scientists to study past life forms. The White River Badlands of South Dakota contributed greatly to the science of vertebrate paleontology. Badlands National Park is very active in conducting field research through partner universities. The park has a full time professional paleontologist, as well as an active agreement with the South Dakota School of Mines for fossil preparation. Badlands National Park formations date from the Late Eocene and Oligocene Epochs, the Age of Mammals. Although some are disappointed when they learn that Badlands National Park is not home to dinosaurs, the rich diversity of extinct mammal life becomes fascinating. Ancestors of the modern day rhinoceros, horse, dog, and many other species are present. There are also early birds, reptiles, and invertebrates found in various strata.
The history of the White River Badlands as a significant paleontological resource goes back to the traditional Native American knowledge of the area. The Lakota found large fossilized bones, fossilized seashells and turtle shells. They correctly assumed that the area had once been under water, and that the bones belonged to creatures which no longer existed. Paleontological interest in this area began in the 1840’s. Trappers and traders regularly traveled the 300 miles from Fort Pierre to Fort Laramie along a path which skirted the edge of what is now Badlands National Park. Fossils were occasionally collected, and in 1843 a fossilized jaw fragment collected by Alexander Culbertson of the American Fur Company found its way to a physician in St. Louis by the name of Dr. Hiram A. Prout.
Paleontological resources are our only source of knowledge about the history of life on earth. Without paleontology, we would not know dinosaurs ever existed! Plant fossils help us find fossil fuels, and animal fossils may show us how species responded to changes in the climate. The Badlands layers represent what, in an earlier age, was the surface of the land – but, without paleontology, we would not know that. Animals that became extinct long before humans were walking upright roamed the ancient plains of this area in large numbers – but we would not know this without paleontology. Our knowledge of past life includes species of which we have thousands of fossils. There are also species for which there is only one known specimen. Paleontology provides theories and answers for such profound questions as: “How old is the earth”, and “What changes has the earth gone through since it began?” “How long has life existed on earth?” Fossils reveal a great deal about what forms of life existed in the past and how they evolved into what we see here today. In Badlands National Park, fossils are remarkably abundant and help us reconstruct climates and landscapes of the past 70 millions years.
What is a fossil?
A fossil is a preserved sign of ancient life. Paleontologists study animal tracks and plants preserved over time, as well as bones that have been converted into fossils through natural chemical processes.
Additionally, other signs such as feces and pollen have also been fossilized and are studied to help get a broader picture of life in prehistoric North America. The area in and around Badlands National Park has had a long association with research on fossil vertebrates. Scientists have been using this area as an outdoor laboratory for over 150 years.
For field work here at the Badlands, the paleontologist’s tools of choice are soft bristled brushes, dental picks, and small trowels. Field specimens are “jacketed,” or carefully encased in plaster and burlap for transport to the storage facility to await preparation for study or display. Fieldwork has a glamorous reputation from movies like Jurassic Park. Firmly in our minds is the idea of sun burnt scientists diligently working to uncover huge fossilized bones. However, reality is that for every hour of fieldwork, fossil preparators and other scientists spend twelve or more hours in a laboratory cleaning, repairing, and identifying each specimen. Badlands fossils range in size from elephant-sized mammals to microscopic rodent teeth. A single specimen may fill a storage building or one hundred specimens may fit inside a film canister.
Fossil specimens are maintained in storage facilities for research purposes or for display in museums and similar educational facilities. Each specimen is assigned a unique number for the larger collection of which it is a part. This process of cataloging specimens includes critical information such as where the specimen was found, when it was found, and identifies it with as much detail as possible. This process enables scientists of the future, who may have more information or improved technology, to continue learning about these important fossils.
The Big Pig Dig
The National Park Service, working with South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT), will spend another summer at the Pig Wallow Site, nicknamed the Big Pig Dig. From early June through late August, park staff and students from the SDSMT carefully remove sediment to expose more mysteries buried within the Badlands strata. The excavation began in June 1993 when two visitors from Iowa discovered a large backbone protruding from the ground near the Conata Picnic Area. Fortunately for all of us, these visitors followed the correct procedure: They left the bones undisturbed and contacted staff at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
The newly discovered site sparked the interest of the park staff. Originally thought to be a four-day excavation, the site is now in its fifteenth and final season of excavation. The site’s name, the Pig Dig, comes from that first exposed fossil, originally thought to be the remains of an ancient pig-like mammal called Archaeotherium. It was later identified as Subhyracodon, a hornless rhinoceros, but the name “Big Pig Dig” stuck. Rhinoceroses are found today in Africa and Asia but smaller versions once lived in the Badlands. Along with Archaeotherium, eighteen other animal species have been found at the site. Discoveries include ancient three-toed horses, tiny deer-like creatures, turtles, and a bobcat-sized saber-toothed cat. Over 15,000 bones have been excavated from the site for research purposes.
The Pig Dig is an excellent example of the questions professionals have to answer: What events led to this large conglomeration of dying animals in one place? Scientists hypothesized that 33 million years ago the area was a watering hole, similar to the large watering areas used by African game today. Due to a drought, the creatures had to travel longer and longer distances to find water. Some perished as they fought to survive after being mired in the soft sediments. Opportunistic animals were drawn to feed on the dead carcasses. Archaeotherium was a scavenger, feeding on both plants and flesh. These large creatures trampled the site, deeply embedding some bones and breaking up skeletons.
Protecting Fossil Resources
You can help protect paleontological resources here and anywhere you travel by following these tips:
•Leave fossils where you find them. It’s tempting to pick them up and take them with you, but don’t. Removing them from their context destroys much of the information critical to scientists. Context refers to where they are found geologically and in what position the fossils are found.
•Be an informed visitor. Be familiar with current issues in paleontology. Once you watch for fossils in the news, you’ll find them discussed almost daily.