The White River Badlands: Geology and Paleontology

The White River Badlands: Geology and Paleontology


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The forbidding Big Badlands in Western South Dakota contain the richest fossil beds in the world. Even today these rocks continue to yield new specimens brought to light by snowmelt and rain washing away soft rock deposited on a floodplain long ago. The quality and quantity of the fossils are superb: most of the species to be found there are known from hundreds of specimens. The fossils in the White River Group (and similar deposits in the American west) preserve the entire late Eocene through the middle Oligocene, roughly 35-30 million years ago and more than 30 million years after non-avian dinosaurs became extinct. The fossils provide a detailed record of a period of abrupt global cooling and what happened to creatures who lived through it. The book provides a comprehensive reference to the sediments and fossils of the Big Badlands and will complement, enhance, and in some ways replace the classic 1920 volume by Cleophas C. O'Harra. Because the book focuses on a national treasure, it touches on National Park Service management policies that help protect such significant fossils.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253016065
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/25/2015
Series: Life of the Past
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 677,351
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 11.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Rachel C. Benton is Park Paleontologist at Badlands National Park.

Dennis O. Terry Jr., is Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Emmett Evanoff is Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado.

H. Gregory McDonaldis Senior Curator of Natural History in the National Park Service Museum Management Program.

Read an Excerpt

The White River Badlands

Geology and Paleontology

By Rachel C. Benton, Dennis O. Terry Jr., Emmett Evanoff, H. Gregory McDonald

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01608-9


History of Paleontologic and Geologic Studies in the Big Badlands

THE FIRST FOSSILS FROM THE BADLANDS OF SOUTH Dakota were collected by employees of the American Fur Company and sent to scientists in the eastern United States. The fur company had opened up a wagon road between Fort Pierre on the Missouri River and Fort John, later known as Fort Laramie, on the Platte River (Fig. 1.1). This was a much shorter route from the Missouri than the long Platte River road, and it crossed the Big Badlands in the headwaters of Bear Creek near the modern town of Scenic, then went south on the east side of Sheep Mountain Table to the White River. Various fur company employees may have collected fossils from this area in the 1840s, but it was the chief agent of the upper Missouri posts for the fur company, Alexander Culbertson, who sent fossils to St. Louis and to his father and uncle in Pennsylvania. Dr. Hiram Prout of St. Louis had been sent a lower jaw fragment of a huge mammal that he identified as Palaeotherium because of its similarity to figured specimens of this European fossil mammal. He sent a cast of this specimen and a letter to Yale University in 1846. The letter and a crude drawing of the specimen's teeth were published in 1846. Prout described the specimen in greater detail the following year, 1847, and this became the first White River fossil mammal to be described in the scientific literature (Fig. 1.2A). The other fossils sent to Culbertson's father and uncle eventually made their way to Dr. Joseph Leidy of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences (Fig. 1.3). One of Leidy's many academic talents was vertebrate paleontology, and beginning with the description of the first fossil camel skull found in the United States, which he named Poebrotherium in 1847 (Fig. 1.2B), he started a long career as the preeminent vertebrate paleontologist of the United States.

These first publications on the fossils from the Badlands piqued the interest of geologists and naturalists, some of whom eventually visited the Badlands. Among these was Dr. David Dale Owen, who was making a geologic survey of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. In 1849 Owen sent one of his assistant geologists, Dr. John Evans, to the Badlands to collect fossils and to determine the age relations of the fossil-bearing rocks. Evans and his field party spent about a week in the Badlands, and all the fossils were sent to Leidy. The results of Evan's expedition plus descriptions of the vertebrate fossils by Leidy were published in 1852. This report included the first map of the region (Fig. 1.4) and the first diagram of the Badlands (Fig. 1.5). Evans described the Badlands as follows:

To the surrounding country ... the Mauvaises Terres present the most striking contrast. From the uniform, monotonous, open prairie, the traveler suddenly descends, one or two hundred feet, into a valley that looks as if it had sunk away from the surrounding world; leaving standing, all over it, thousands of abrupt, irregular, prismatic, and columnar masses, frequently capped with irregular pyramids, and stretching up to a height of from one to two hundred feet, or more.

So thickly are these natural towers studded over the surface of this extraordinary region, that the traveler threads his way through deep, confined, labyrinthine passages, not unlike the narrow, irregular streets and lanes of some quaint old town of the European Continent. Viewed in the distance, indeed, these rocky piles, in their endless succession, assume the appearance of massive artificial structures, decked out with all the accessories of buttress and turret, arched doorway and clustered shaft, pinnacle, and finial, and tapering spire. (Evans, 1852:197)

Thaddeus A. Culbertson was the younger half-brother of Alexander Culbertson and was educated at what is now Princeton University. He decided to travel in the summer of 1850 to the upper Missouri country to study the Native Americans along the river and to collect natural history specimens. He discussed his trip with Spencer F. Baird, who was soon to become a curator at the Smithsonian Institution. Baird urged the younger Culbertson to make a visit to the Badlands to collect fossil vertebrates. Culbertson traveled with two guides to the upper Bear Creek drainage and spent about a day collecting. He returned to Fort Pierre with a small but good collection of fossils. Culbertson returned to Washington in August 1850 but died 3 weeks after his return from complications related to tuberculosis. Baird had some of Culbertson's journal of the trip published in 1851, but Culbertson's entire journal was not completely published until 1952 by McDermott. All of the fossils that Evans and the Culbertson brothers collected were sent to Leidy, who published his first monograph on the Mauvaises Terres fauna in 1853.

Eighteen fifty-three was the year not only of Leidy's first monograph but also of the second trip of Evans to the Badlands, and the first trip to the Badlands by Fielding B. Meek and Ferdinand V. Hayden (Fig. 1.3). Meek became the preeminent invertebrate paleontologist in the United States, specializing in the invertebrate fossils of the west, and Hayden would later become the director of one of the five great geologic surveys of the American West after the Civil War. In 1853 both were assistants of James Hall of the New York Geological Survey. Hall wanted collections from the upper Missouri basin, including fossils from the Badlands. Sent by Hall to St. Louis, Meek and Hayden initially met opposition to their proposed collecting trip to the Badlands by Evans, who considered the two to be interlopers in the fossil beds. However, the two groups finally cooperated and spent about a month collecting along the Fort Pierre-Fort Laramie road (Fig. 1.6). Hayden would return to the Badlands in May 1855, traveling along buffalo trails along the south side of the White River, and collecting at such areas as the Palmer Creek area of the modern South Unit of Badlands National Park (Hayden, 1856). Hayden served for the Union army as a surgeon during the Civil War, and after the war he would make one last trip to the Badlands. In May 1866 Hayden traveled from Fort Randall along the Missouri River up the Niobrara River, across the Pine Ridge, to his old fossil-collecting areas at Palmer Creek, the south end of Sheep Mountain Table, and the upper Bear Creek drainage. Hayden (1869) was disappointed in the relatively small numbers of fossils that he found in the areas that he had collected in 1853 and 1855. Apparently there had not been enough erosion to uncover fossils in the numbers that he had found in his earlier surveys. In 1869 Hayden wrote the geology discussion to Leidy's great monograph, The Extinct Mammalian Fauna of Dakota and Nebraska. This monograph summarized all of the fossil mammals from the White River Group (named as the White River Series by Meek and Hayden in 1858) that had been collected over the previous two decades (Fig. 1.7). This work would be the best description of White River fossils for the next 70 years.

Collecting parties from East Coast universities and museums dominated the studies of the Badlands in the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century. Othniel C. Marsh of the Yale Peabody Museum collected in the White River Badlands in 1874 (Schuchert and LeVene, 1940). Marsh collected primarily in northwest Nebraska, though he may have made excursions as far north as the South Dakota Badlands. While at the Red Cloud Agency, Marsh learned of the following Lakota tale from a friend, Captain James H. Cook. Cook had been shown a huge molar from a brontothere by the Lakota, and Cook's friend, American Horse, told the following legend about the beast:

American Horse explained that the tooth had belonged to a "Thunder Horse" that had lived "away back" and that then this creature would sometimes come down to earth in thunderstorms and chase and kill buffalo. His old people told stories of how on one occasion many, many years back, this big Thunder Horse had driven a herd of buffalo right into a camp of Lacota [sic] people during a bad thunderstorm, when these people were about to starve, and that they had killed many of these buffalo with their lances and arrows. The "Great Spirit" had sent the Thunder Horse to help them get food when it was needed most badly. This story was handed down from the time when the Indians had no horses. (Osborn, i929:xxi)

Not long after, Marsh named one of the genera of these huge relatives of the rhinoceros Brontotherium, "thunder beast." Though this genus name is not widely used today, the group is still referred to as brontotheres.

After 1874 Marsh hired collectors to send him fossils from the West. The most capable and renowned of these collectors was John Bell Hatcher (Fig. 1.3). In 1886 Marsh sent Hatcher out to the Great Plains to collect skulls and skeletons of brontotheres that occur in the lower deposits of the White River Group. Hatcher started his work in northwest Nebraska and adjacent Wyoming, but in 1887 he traveled to the Badlands east of Hermosa, South Dakota, where he collected 13 skulls, including three skulls in a single day. In the 15 months that he collected brontothere fossils during the three field seasons of 1886, 1887, and 1888, Hatcher collected 105 skulls and numerous skeletons and isolated bones of brontotheres (Hatcher, 1893:214) that totaled about 24.5 tons of fossil materials (estimated from the figures given in Schuchert and LeVene, 1940). No other collector of White River fossils has matched the volume of materials collected by Hatcher.

Between 1890 and 1910 many major museums and universities sent collecting parties to the Badlands. These included the American Museum of Natural History in New York; the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago; Princeton University; Amherst College in Massachusetts; the University of Nebraska in Lincoln; the University of Kansas in Lawrence; the University of South Dakota in Vermillion; and the South Dakota School of Mines (O'Harra, 1910). Meek and Hayden (1858) had given the name White River Series to the rocks of the South Dakota Badlands, and they subdivided the rocks by their fauna into the lower titanothere beds and the overlying turtle-Oreodon beds. Jacob L. Wortman, while working in the South Dakota Badlands in 1892 as a collector for the American Museum of Natural History, recognized an additional faunal subdivision for the White River (Wortman, 1893). He subdivided Hayden's turtle–Oreodon beds into the lower Oreodon beds (dominated by the oreodont Merycoidodon) with the Metamynodon channels and the upper Leptauchenia beds (another kind of oreodont) with the Protoceras channels. Metamynodon is a large, primitive, odd-toed ungulate (perissodactyl) related to the rhinoceros, and Protoceras is a medium-size, even-toed ungulate (artiodactyl) that is a member of an extinct group related to the camels and deer. This three-part faunal division of the White River sequence was later formalized as the Chadronian, Orellan, and Whitneyan land mammal ages (Wood et al., 1941). The first subdivisions of the White River rocks on the basis of rock types (lithology) was made by N. H. Darton (1899) of the U.S. Geological Survey, who recognized the lower Chadron Formation as well as the upper Brule Formation in western Nebraska and South Dakota. The Chadron Formation included the basal red beds and the overlying greenish-gray claystone beds of the lower White River, while the Brule Formation included the tan mudstone and siltstone beds of the upper White River. Together, the Chadron and Brule formations make up the White River Group of South Dakota and Nebraska.

Paleontologists could position their fossil localities to within these broad faunal subdivisions, but the lack of detailed maps in the 1800s prevented the detailed recording of geographic locations of fossil sites, and only rudimentary sedimentology concepts were understood. Evans (1852), Hayden (1869), and most nineteenth-century geologists thought the White River sediments had been deposited in a huge lake. Fine-grained, fairly well-bedded rocks were thought to have been deposited in quiet water, and the presence of freshwater snails and clams were used as evidence of the existence of a lake that covered a huge area of the Great Plains and butted up against the flanks of the Black Hills and Rocky Mountains. The bones of mammals and other land-dwelling organisms were thought to have washed into the lake from rivers during floods. This so-called lacustrine theory for the origin of the White River and other Tertiary rocks of the Great Plains was questioned as early as 1869 by Leidy, who found few aquatic vertebrates in the White River fossil record to support the existence of the lake. The lacustrine theory was finally debunked by Hatcher in 1902. Hatcher made his argument that the White River rocks were deposited by rivers because of the presence of ancient river channels represented by long, thin, sinuous gravel and coarse sand deposits scattered throughout the White River fine-grained mudrocks. The White River fauna included almost all land-dwelling organisms, along with extremely few aquatic vertebrates and invertebrates except in channel deposits or the thin limestone deposits. The few plant fossils (hackberry seeds, fossil roots, and rare tree stumps) also were widely distributed in the White River mudrocks. Because of his arguments and professional stature as a well-respected vertebrate paleontologist, Hatcher put the lacustrine theory to rest.

For six decades, paleontologists and geologists from Princeton University made extensive studies of the rocks and fossils from the South Dakota Badlands. William Berryman Scott led the first Princeton students into the Badlands in 1882. While publishing extensively on the White River mammals, he returned with students to the area in 1890 and 1893. John Bell Hatcher had been hired as a curator of vertebrate paleontology by Princeton in 1893, and he joined Scott and the students in the Badlands that summer. Scott turned the student field camp duties over to Hatcher, who made many more extensive collections for Princeton. Hatcher left Princeton in 1900, and in 1905 Dr. William J. Sinclair was hired as vertebrate paleontologist. In 1920 he started a major study of the fossils and geology of the lowest beds of the Brule Formation in the Badlands, then called the red layer. Sinclair was not only an excellent vertebrate paleontologist but also an excellent geologist. Sinclair (1923) was one of the first to consider the detailed origins of the White River bone beds on the basis of the lithologic context and postmortem (taphonomic) features of the fossil bones. He carefully recorded the vertical positions of the fossils within the lower Brule Formation and documented vertical changes in the faunas. Sinclair's first student, Harold R. Wanless, made one of the most extensive studies of the White River rocks in the South Dakota Badlands. Wanless (1921) studied the lithologic features of the White River Group and the distribution and origin of the rocks over a large area, mainly west of Sheep Mountain Table (Wanless, 1923). Wanless carefully recorded his observations and interpretations and his papers are still essential reading for anyone who studies the geology of the Badlands. Sinclair was to work with William Berryman Scott on a monographic study of the White River fauna, but Sinclair died in 1935. Sinclair's student Glenn L. Jepsen took over as Scott's colleague in the monumental monograph The Mammalian Fauna of the White River Oligocene, published between 1936 and 1941. The well-illustrated five-part set (Fig. 1.8) was divided into the following taxonomic groups; insectivores and carnivores (Scott and Jepsen, 1936), rodents (Wood, 1937), lagomorphs (Wood, 1940), artiodactyls (Scott and Jepsen, 1940), and perissodactyls, edentates and marsupials (Scott, 1941). This was the first extensive White River monograph since Leidy (1869) and has never been duplicated.

Jepsen took over as the vertebrate paleontologist at Princeton but his interest drifted into older Paleogene faunas, ending White River studies at Princeton. His student John Clark continued the work on the White River Group from the 1930s well into the 1970s. Clark's doctoral dissertation, published in 1937, was on the geology and paleontology of the Chadron Formation in the South Dakota Badlands. Similar in methods to those of Sinclair and Wanless, Clark also made analyses of the vertebrate fauna of the Chadron formation. Working primarily for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and later at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Clark continued his studies of the Chadron Formation and expanded into studying the lower Brule Formation (Scenic Member). Clark (1954) gave names to the three parts of the Chadron Formation west of Sheep Mountain Table: the Ahearn, Crazy Johnson, and Peanut Peak members. After 30 years of study, Clark and two contributors, James R. Beerbower and Kenneth K. Kietzke, published a memoir in 1967 about their work in White River rocks and faunas of the Badlands titled Oligocene Sedimentation, Stratigraphy, Paleoecology, and Paleoclimatology in the Big Badlands of South Dakota. This memoir discusses such topics as paleoclimatology as interpreted from the rocks and fauna, paleoecology from the distribution of the fauna in the rocks and the rocks' depositional environments, and details of fluvial sedimentology. These discussions predated modern detailed sedimentologic and faunal analyses by decades.


Excerpted from The White River Badlands by Rachel C. Benton, Dennis O. Terry Jr., Emmett Evanoff, H. Gregory McDonald. Copyright © 2015 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Institutional Acronyms
1. History of Paleontologic and Geologic Studies in the Big Badlands
2. Sedimentary Geology of the Big Badlands
3. Paleoenvironmental and Paleoclimatic Interpretations from Paleosols
4. Post-depositional Processes and Erosion of the White River Badlands
5. Bones that Turned to Stone: Systematics
6. Death on the Landscape: Taphonomy and Paleoenvironments
7. The Big Badlands in Space and Time
8. National Park Service Policy and the Management of Fossil Resources

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