10 Rugged Facts About Badlands National Park

iStock
iStock

Established in 1978 [PDF] and covering 244,000 acres of South Dakota, Badlands National Park is home to one of the most distinct landscapes in the country. Close to 1 million people visit the site each year to see the formations striped by millennia of sedimentary rock. Here are some facts worth knowing about the park.

1. IT USED TO BE A SEA ...

The Badlands were covered by a shallow sea when they first started forming 75 million years ago. As the water receded, it left behind sediment (grains of clay, sand, or silt) that helped form the plateaus and pinnacles that make up the landscape today. The ancient sea also left behind a trove of fossils. The Oglala Lakota [PDF] people were the first to uncover large fossils of bones and shells in the area and deduce that the land had once been underwater.

2. ... AND THE TERRAIN WAS SHAPED BY WATER.

Rock formations at Badlands National Park.
iStock

The rock formations at Badlands are characterized by their unusual shapes and vibrant red, tan, and white stripes. Both features are products of the powerful waters that have shaped the site. Each stripe in the rocks represents a different layer of sediment that was swept there by rivers and seas millions of years ago. Over time, that wet mud and grit hardened into sedimentary rock, with the old rock layers starting at the bottom and becoming gradually newer the closer they get to the top.

Depositing sediment wasn’t the only way water helped shape the landscape. About 500,000 years ago, after most of the sedimentary rock had already formed, erosion from the White, Bad, and Cheyenne rivers began carving away at the flat floodplain. This resulted in the sloping hills, jagged cliff faces, and precarious spires that now draw visitors to the park.

3. THE ROCKS ARE STILL ERODING.

At Badlands National Park, you can witness a geological wonder. The forces of nature that sculpted the park over so many years are still at work, which means the terrain is constantly, albeit slowly, shifting. According to the National Park Service, the Badlands erode at a rate of one inch per year.

4. IT’S MORE THAN PRETTY ROCKS.

Field of grass and flowers.
iStock

Badlands isn’t all dirt and rocks. The park is also home to one of the country's largest areas of mixed-grass prairie. That means both ankle-high grasses and waist-high grasses grow abundantly there. According to scientists, the ecosystem fosters over 400 species of plant life.

5. THE NAME MEANS EXACTLY WHAT YOU THINK IT DOES.

The Oglala Lakota people were the first to give the site of modern-day Badlands National Park a name. They dubbed the harsh, rocky landscape mako sica, which translates to “land bad.” When the French arrived, they had the same idea. They called the region les mauvaises terres a traverser, or "bad lands to traverse."

6. IT’S APPEARED IN BLOCKBUSTERS.

If you’re unable to visit Badlands National Park in person, you can see it on film as the backdrop of some popular movies. At the beginning of the 1990 film Dances With Wolves starring Kevin Costner, the park is used as the setting for part of Lieutenant Dunbar’s wagon trek. The otherworldly terrain has even appeared in science fiction. In Starship Troopers (1997), the landscape stands in for an alien planet of man-eating bugs. It’s used as the surface of an asteroid in the 1998 film Armageddon.

7. IT’S A HOTSPOT FOR FOSSILS.

Fossils at Badlands National Park.
Curtis Abert, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The same forces that shaped the Badlands also embedded fossils there millions of years ago. The site is home to more late Eocene and Oligocene mammal fossils than any other place on Earth. Some of the ancient creatures whose remains have been uncovered there include three-toed horses, rhinoceroses, and marine reptiles. Badlands fossils are on display along the park's Fossil Exhibit Trail and in museums around the globe.

8. IT WAS THE SITE OF THE ‘GHOST DANCES.’

Indigenous tribes used the Badlands as hunting grounds for thousands of years, and in the late 19th century much of that land was taken from them [PDF]. White settlers were moving into South Dakota and pushed the Oglala Lakota from their homes. In response, a Native American prophet named Wovoka began organizing "Ghost Dances" on Stronghold Table in the Badlands where his followers danced while wearing "Ghost Shirts" they believed to be bulletproof [PDF]. The ritual was meant to restore the area back to its pre-colonial state. Instead, the dances ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, which saw 300 Indians shot and killed by United States Cavalry officers. Today the Stronghold District falls inside Oglala Lakota territory and is managed by the National Park Service.

9. IT WAS USED AS A BOMBING RANGE DURING WORLD WAR II.

The Stronghold District’s tumultuous history extends beyond the Ghost Dances. During World War II, when Badlands was just a national monument, the U.S. Air Force seized 341,726 acres of Oglala Lakota land and turned it into a gunnery [PDF]. The space was used to test air-to-air and air-to-ground explosives, and undetonated bombs are still being discovered in the area today.

10. A NATIVE SPECIES IS MAKING A COMEBACK.

Black-footed ferret on the ground.
J. Michael Lockhart, USFWS/Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Black-footed ferrets, once widespread across the Great Plains, came close to extinction in the 20th century. Prairie dogs are their main food source, and the destruction of this prey population had a drastic effect on ferret numbers. Experts once thought the species had been wiped out for good, but in the 1980s a small ferret colony was spotted in Meeteetse, Wyoming. That group was captured and used as the basis for a population rebuilding program. In 1994, the first batch of captive-bred ferrets were reintroduced to Badlands National Park where they once roamed wild. Today,  there are hundreds of ferrets in the area [PDF] and the park has even hosted a black-footed ferret festival.

5 Simple Ways to Upgrade Your Green Bean Casserole

iStock.com/bhofack2
iStock.com/bhofack2

Green bean casserole became a fixture of Thanksgiving spreads shortly after Dorcas Reilly invented the dish in 1955. The classic recipe, which includes Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup and French’s French fried onions, is a sacred piece of Americana—but there's nothing stopping you from playing around with it this Thanksgiving. Just brace yourself for skeptical looks from your more traditional relatives when these variations hit the table.

1. USE HOMEMADE FRIED ONION RINGS.

Green bean casserole typically calls for crispy fried onion bits from a can—and that's fine if you're pressed for time on the big day. But if you're looking to make your casserole taste unforgettable, it's hard to beat to fresh onion rings fried at home. Homemade onion rings are more flavorful than the store-bought stuff and they provide an eye-popping topper for your dish. If you're interested in making onion rings part of your Thanksgiving menu, this recipe from delish will walk you through it.

2. ADD SOME GOUDA.

This recipe from Munchies gives the all-American green bean casserole some European class with shallots, chanterelles, and smoked gouda. Some family members may object to adding a pungent cheese to this traditional dish, but tell them to wait until after they taste it to judge.

3. LIGHTEN IT UP.

As is the case with any recipe that calls for a can of creamy condensed soup, green bean casserole is rarely described as a "light" bite. Some people like the heavy richness of the dish, but if you're looking to give diners a lighter alternative, this recipe from Food52 does the trick. Instead of cream of mushroom soup, it involves a dressing of crème fraîche, sherry vinegar, mustard, and olive oil. Hazelnuts and chives provide the crunch in place of fried onions. It may be more of a salad than a true casserole, but the spirit of the classic recipe is alive in this dish.

4. MIX IN SOME BACON.

Looking to make your green bean casserole even more indulgent this Thanksgiving? There are plenty of recipes out there that will help you do so. This "jazzed-up" version from Taste of Home includes all the conventional ingredients of a green bean casserole with some inspired additions. Crumbled bacon and water chestnuts bring the crunch, and Velveeta ups the cheesy decadence factor to an 11.

5. TURN IT INTO A TART.

If your Thanksgiving menu is looking heavy on the side dishes, consider making your green bean casserole into an appetizer. This green bean and mushroom tart from Thanksgiving & Co. has all the flavors of the traditional casserole baked on an easy-to-eat tart. A tart is also a tasty option if you're looking to repurpose your green bean casserole leftovers the day after.

9 Not-So-Pesky Facts About Termites

iStock.com/Thithawat_s
iStock.com/Thithawat_s

Termites get a lot of hate for chewing through buildings, but the little creatures are far more interesting—and ecologically valuable—than we often give them credit for. Unless, of course, you’re Lisa Margonelli, the author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Terminology, a new book that explores their amazing world. Here are nine facts about the highly social—and occasionally pesky—insects that we learned from the book.

1. THERE ARE FAR MORE TERMITES THAN PEOPLE ON EARTH.

Termite queens live up to 25 years, and can lay somewhere around 30,000 eggs a day. As a result, a single mound can be home to millions of individuals at a time. While the numbers vary from study to study, scientists estimate that the biomass of all the termites in the world is at least as great as that of humans.

2. MOST TERMITES AREN’T PESTS.

Of the 2800 named termite species in the world, the majority have no interest in eating your house. Only 28 species are known to chow down on buildings and infrastructure. Most are actually very beneficial to their ecosystems, clearing dead wood, aerating the soil with their intricate tunnel systems, and enhancing plant growth. Researchers have found that contrary to being pests, networks of termite mounds can help make dry environments like savannas more resilient to climate change because of the way termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, among other benefits.

3. TERMITES ARE GOOD FOR CROPS.

Termites can help make soil more fertile. In one study, researchers in Australia found that fields that were home to ants and termites produced 36 percent more wheat, without fertilizer, compared to non-termite fields. Why? Termites help fertilize the soil naturally—their poop, which they use to plaster their tunnels, is full of nitrogen. Their intricate system of underground tunnels also helps rainfall penetrate the soil more deeply, which reduces the amount of moisture that evaporates from the dirt and makes it more likely that the water can be taken up by plants.

4. TERMITES HAVE VERY SPECIFIC ROLES IN THEIR COLONY.

Each termite colony has a queen and king termite (or several), plus workers and soldiers. This caste system, controlled by pheromones produced by the reigning queen, determines not just what different termites do in the colony but how they look. Queens and kings develop wings that, when they’re sexually mature, they use to fly away from their original nest to reproduce and start their own colony. Once they land at the site of their new colony, queens and kings snap off these wings, since they’ll spend the rest of their lives underground. Queens are also physically much larger than other castes: The largest type of termite, an African species called Macrotermes bellicosus, produces queens up to 4 inches long.

Unlike their royal counterparts, most workers and soldiers don’t have either eyes or wings. Worker termites, which are responsible for foraging, building tunnels, and feeding the other castes in the nest, are significantly smaller than queens. M. bellicosus workers, for instance, measure around 0.14 inches. Soldier termites are slightly bigger than workers, with large, sharp mandibles designed to slice up ants and other enemies that might invade the nest.

5. TERMITES ARE ONE OF THE FASTEST ANIMALS IN THE WORLD.

Apologies to cheetahs, but termites hold the record for world’s fastest animal movement. Panamanian termites can clap their mandibles shut at 157 miles per hour. (Compare that to the cheetah’s run, which tops out at about 76 miles per hour.) This quick action allows tiny termite soldiers in narrow tunnels to kill invaders with a single bite.

6. TERMITES ARE SKILLED ARCHITECTS.

In Namibia, quarter-inch-long termites of the genus Macrotermes can move 364 pounds of dirt and 3300 pounds of water each year total in the course of building their 17-foot-tall mounds. Relative to their size, that’s the equivalent of humans building the 163 floors of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, no cranes required. And that’s not even the tallest termite mound around—some can be up to 30 feet high. More impressively, termites cooperate to build these structures without any sort of centralized plan. Engineers are now trying to replicate this decentralized swarm intelligence to build robots that could erect buildings in a similar fashion.

7. TERMITES BUILD THEIR OWN AIR CONDITIONING.

Some termites have developed an incredibly efficient method of climate control in the form of tall, above-ground mounds that sit above their nests. Organized around a central chimney, the structures essentially act as giant lungs, "breathing" air in and out as the temperature outside changes in relation to the temperature inside. Thanks to these convection cycles, termites keep underground temperatures in their nest between roughly 84°F and 90°F.

8. TERMITES ARE FARMERS.

Humans aren’t the only ones cultivating crops. Termites farm, too. They’ve been doing it for more than 25 million years, compared to humans’ 23,000 years. Some species of termite have evolved a symbiotic relationship with Termitomyces fungi, growing fungus in underground gardens for food. When they fly off to create a new colony, termite queens bring along fungus spores from their parent colony to seed the garden that will feed their new nest. Foraging termite workers go out and eat plant material that they can’t fully digest on their own, then deposit their feces on the fungus for it to feed on. They can then eat the fungus. They may also be able to eat some of the plant material after the fungus has sufficiently broken it down. The mutually beneficial relationship has led some scientists to suggest that the fungus, which is much larger in both size and energy production than the termites, could in fact be the one in control of the relationship, potentially releasing chemical pheromones that lead the termites to build the mound they live in together.

9. TERMITES ARE MICROBIAL GOLD MINES.

As scientists begin to understand the huge role that micobiomes play in both the human body and the rest of the world, termites provide a fascinating case study. About 90 percent of the organisms in termite guts aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. In their hindgut alone, they host as many as 1400 species of bacteria. These microbes are so efficient at converting the cellulose-rich wood and dead grass that termites eat into energy, scientists want to harness them to make biofuel from plants.

Want to learn more about termites? Get yourself a copy of Underbug on Amazon for $18.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER