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 are considered to be the birthplace of 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, pig, cat, 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. Be aware: Digging and/or moving fossils or artifacts from their locations in the ground is prohibited by Federal law. The matter is taken very seriously in our Park. Offenders are prosecuted. Fines range from $50.00 to $250,000 and in severe cases offenders have been jailed.