Walking through the badlands is like walking through a western novel: canyons cut through the prairie, exposing layers of brown, gold, black and white sediment. Clichés keep popping up: tumbleweeds roll by, cactus pop out from unexpected places, and cattle skulls bleach in the sun. Scorpions hide in coal seams, soaking up the sun’s heat from the black rock that camouflages them. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but once you accept the fact that you’re in a place unlike anywhere else in Canada, it all becomes simple and beautiful.
This is the environment where Dr. David Evans and his colleagues spend several weeks each year as part of the ROM’s Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project. It’s bone dry and forbidding, but also immensely beautiful. The area is classified as a semi-arid steppe: it’s mainly shortgrass prairie cut by canyons, with the occasional herd of cattle grazing docilely nearby.
Prairie wildflowers abound, especially in the canyons and coulees where they can find shade and shelter from the wind. Cactus flowers are the biggest you’re likely to find, and catch the eye from a distance, with their vibrant yellow petals. Just don’t try to pick one – the spines on a prickly pear cactus are barbed and will stick in you with very little effort on your part. The good news is that they’ll usually work themselves out of your flesh within a few days. I know about this from personal experience, having grabbed a prickly pear by reflex as I lost my footing once, and getting 42 spines in my palm as a result. That’s why I wear bike gloves whenever I’m in the badlands now.
In spite of the aridity, animals abound in the badlands, ranging from scorpions and horned lizards to coyotes, mule deer and pronghorn antelope. These animals are well adapted to conserving water and staying cool, often seeking shelter during the hottest part of the day. Different animals rely on different parts of the prairie for their food: grass, flowers, shrubs and even cactus are fair game for a variety of mammals, while animals like the horned lizard and scorpions are much more likely to be interested in a tasty ant or two.
And of course, there are other insects, which can be pests when you’re sweating over fossils in a hot quarry, but which form an essential part of the ecosystem. Mosquitoes, horse flies and more live in southern Alberta, and ants are fairly common.
All these animals live next to the herds of cattle that are grazed all over southern Alberta. The Pinhorn Provincial Grazing Reserve occupies a large part of the land around the Milk River where much of the Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project’s work takes place. Unfortunately, when those cattle get lost or wander into a coulee, they sometimes can’t get out, especially if they twist an ankle in one of the many holes and crevices in the coulees.
In spite of the fact that the Palliser Expedition recommended that no agriculture be attempted in the area due its aridity, farms exist around the grazing areas, thanks to irrigation. In spite of the aridity, trees such as the cottonwood can grow along riverbanks, sending roots deep into the soil to collect water.
See the rest of the Summerasaurus Dino series for more on the ROM’s hunt for dinos!
Want to learn more about the dinosaurs that inhabited this area millions of years ago? Visit the ROM’s James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs.