Paleontology

The process by which we go from a piece of rock to a vivid picture of ancient life and environments is a science called paleontology. Paleontologists study ancient animals, plants, climates, and even geology to piece together pictures of environments unlike any you can experience on Earth today. Most of this is done studying evidence of an organism or its activity that have been preserved in rock, called a fossil.

Types of fossils can vary widely. They may be the imprints of ancient leaves, trackways and burrows, or dinosaur bones. Every fossil, no matter how small, is one piece of a great puzzle. Just as every living thing in today's prairie is important to the big picture, each part of the ancient ecosystem gives some insight into how it functioned. To build an accurate picture of these ancient environments, every piece is needed.

The paleontology of Wind Cave National Park spans about 350 million years, with the oldest paleontological evidence dating back to the Mississippian period. Careful collection and studying of these fossils reveals how the environment and faunal assemblage of the park has changed over this amount of time.

 

Paleontology In the Park

 
Persistence Cave
The entrance to Persistence Cave.

NPS photo

Persistence Cave

In 2004, Marc Ohms, a physical scientist at Wind Cave National Park, found Persistence Cave which searching for another cave entrance. It was not until 2013, however, that Persistence Cave was tested as a paleontological site. To date, hundreds of bones have been found, cataloging 22 species dating back over 11,000 years. This puts Persistence Cave's window into a time called the Pleistocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period.

the picture of Wind Cave National Park drawn from Persistence Cave is very different from that of the modern-day Black Hills. Spruce and fir covered the area in a thick forest home to dire wolves (Canis dirus) and peccaries (Platygonus sp.). In fact, some evidence suggests that Persistence Cave itself was a dire wolf den.

Smaller fossils provide perhaps even more significant insight. The presence of pikas and pine martins (now extinct in the Black Hills) indicates that the climate was much colder, while tiger salamanders and alpine trees indicate that it was much wetter. In fact, these animals date to the end of the last Ice Age, when glaciers extended as far south as modern-day Wisconsin. The environment represented at Persistence Cave is more similar to that of Rocky Mountain or Glacier National Park than it is to Wind Cave National Park today.
 
Subhyracodon jaw
The unfinished fragments of a Subhyracodon jaw.

NPS photo

Centennial Site

In 2003, Wind Cave National Park's 100th annivesary, excavation began at a place called the Centennial Site. These fossils date to the Oligocene epoch of the Paleogene period and are about 30 million years old.

The picture presented by the Centennial Site is of a subtropical savannah. the climate was warm and seasonal, with distinct wet and dry seasons, and the plains were populated by large mammals such as the rhinoceros Subhyracodon and the horse Mesohippus. Fossils of these animals, as well as turtles, extinct cat-sized deer, and others, give up a glimpse of what Wind Cave National Park was like before the Ice Ages and before the bison.

You can learn more about this timeframe, often called the Age of Mammals, by visiting two nearby National Park Service lands. Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska both preserve fossils of Oligocene mammals, and both have displays to educate visitors about these ancient environments.
 
Gastropod on boxwork
A gastropod fossil found attached to the end of a boxwork fin.

NPS photo

Paha Sapa Limestone

The very rock that formed Wind Cave carries evidence of another ancient environment, this one far older and more exotic than those described above. This rock was laid down in a tropical ocean covering most of North America around 350 million years ago, in a period called the Mississippian. These fossils are older than mammals, older than dinosaurs, and even older than flowers.

This ocean was inhabited by strange animals only found in deep seas today. Shelled creatures called brachiopods formed beds on the ocean bottoms. Though they look similar to today's clams and scallops, they have no relation to these organisms. Likewise, the corals of this time--called rugose corals--are not more than superficially similar to those of modern seas. Crinoids--or sea lilies--made up gardens on the sea floor, filtering plankton out of the water.

You can experience small windows into this world at several locations in the park. Fossil Ridge, off of Cold Brook Canyon Trail, has excellent examples of brachiopod fossils, and you can even see occasional brachiopod and rugose coral fossils along Wind Cave's tour routes.

Last updated: September 20, 2019

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