10 Rugged Facts About Badlands National Park

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

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Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

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By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

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Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in 2019's Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.