The Prehistoric Ghosts of Badlands National Park!

Visiting Badlands National Park is like stepping off onto another planet, especially since its topography so different than the surrounding Dakota plains. Like all National Parks, it’s striking to behold and an amazing locale for recreational hikes and photography. It’s also the location of the largest accumulation of mammal fossils from the Eocene and Oligocene Epochs. Back then, North America was a lot like how we view Africa today; with prehistoric versions of rhinoceros, elephant, camels, lions, and sloths to name but a few. The Badlands offers paleontologists a snapshot of what their world was like.

Of course life still exists amid the seemingly barren rocks. As soon as we arrived we noticed a group of photographers facing the opposite direction of the formations. This was due to the presence of a group bighorn sheep grazing nearby. The animals were native to this region until uncontrolled hunting rendered them extinct back in 1916. In the early ‘90s, they were reintroduced and, judging by the number we encountered during our visit, I’d say it was a success.

Looking out at the Badland’s expanse was truly breathtaking which I realize sounds cliche’ but there’s really no other way to describe it. It’s a collection of ledges and cliffs highlighted by distinct colorful lines; each revealing the various different environments that existed here throughout our planet’s history.

The Fossil Exhibit Trail (located at the Northeast portion of the park) was particularly helpful at identifying which animals roamed these parts and which sedimentary lines represented their era. Talk about taking a stroll through history – this was pretty amazing!

The largest of these were the Titanotheres which, as discussed in my last post/toy review, included Megacerops. Their presence illustrates just how different this environment was 35 million years ago; lush with enough vegetation to support large herbivores such as these.

Other animals that once roamed these parts include…

Mesohippus a.k.a. the three-toed horse  – Although a member of the horse family, these guys were smaller and browsed rather than grazed. As their name implies, they also had toes as opposed to hooves. The evolution of the “hoof” gave their larger cousins an advantage with speed. Did Mesohippos go extinct on account of not being able to keep up?

Hyaenodon –  a dog-like carnivore that was the size of a modern German Shepard. Despite its moniker, they weren’t related to hyenas though may have hunted like them.

Sabre-toothed cats – Though not related to our beloved tabbies, these top predators of the Eocene did have retractable claws to complement their enormous canines.

Archaeotherium – A large pig-like animal that scavenged the flood plains.

Oreodonts – Group of hoofed animals the size of large dogs

Hornless Rhino – Large rhinos who browsed leaves.

Badlands National Park is about as close as you’ll get to touring a museum in the great outdoors. It’s definitely one Prehistoric Pit Stop worth taking!

~Dave Fuentes 

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