Dangers of the Badlands

The museum’s dinosaur researcher, Dr. Jordan Mallon, is leading his first field expedition this June accompanied by collections technician Margaret Currie. Follow their three-week journey to southeastern Alberta in search of dinosaur remains. As with any fieldwork, there are some hazards that keep them on their toes!

Margaret and I have been prospecting in the badlands near Hilda, Alberta (about one hour northeast of Medicine Hat) for a few days now. We’ve had some success so far, but before I fill you in on our progress in a later blog, I thought I would present five common dangers that we’ve encountered in the badlands.

Cacti are definitely among the most common dangers we’ve seen. Prickly pear (Opuntia littoralis var. vaseyi) and pincushion cacti are everywhere. The latter are actually quite pretty when they blossom, but cacti otherwise make life difficult. The pain is sharp and lasting, should you accidentally grab onto one while navigating your way down a coulee, or sit on one without seeing it. Dead cacti are especially dangerous because their brown colour makes them hard to see.

Prickly-pear cactus in the badlands.

Cacti pose an ever-present danger while tromping through the badlands. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Sinkholes are another common danger in the badlands. These are openings in the ground caused by water erosion. Some sinkholes are small, while others are large enough to swallow a person whole. (A good friend of mine once found a human skull in one!) It’s best to give these wide berth.

A sinkhole in the badlands.

Sinkholes can be a real threat if you don’t watch where you’re walking. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Bentonite is a type of ancient mud rich in volcanic ash. When dry, bentonite is relatively harmless, and looks like brown popcorn on the surface of the badlands. When wet, however, beware: bentonite can soak up water like a sponge, making the mud extremely slippery.  One misstep and bentonite can send you flying down a steep coulee, into cactus or sinkholes or our next hazard.

The popcorn-like appearance of bentonite on the ground.

Here you can see the popcorn-like appearance of bentonite. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Most snakes encountered in the badlands are actually quite harmless. However, prairie rattlesnakes can pose a threat should you stumble upon one in the long grass. Their venom is deadly, but a nasty encounter can usually be avoided if you keep an ear out for their distinctive rattling.

A bullsnake in the grass.

A bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), one of the many harmless snakes found in Alberta’s badlands. Thankfully, we haven’t stumbled across a rattler yet.
Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Spear grass might appear harmless; its quills tend to stab you in the ankles, and sting no more than a mosquito bite. But it grows tall and in abundance, and will stick to the bottom of your truck. After driving around the prairies for some time, you’re likely to get spear grass stuck in the hot undercarriage, which can pose a serious fire hazard. That’s why we adhere to a strict grassfire protocol, whereby we remove all grass from the undercarriage of the truck after parking, and keep a water pump and fire broom on hand in case things get heated.

Well, that’s it for now. We’re keeping our eye out as the hunt continues for fossils. I’ll be sure to check in soon with an update on what we find. Oh, and Mom, Dad…if you’re reading this, I’m okay. Really!

Read previous blogs about this fieldwork:

This entry was posted in Fieldwork, Fossils, Research and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Dangers of the Badlands

  1. Pingback: Trenching a Turtle—Saving a Fossil for Study | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

  2. Pingback: Bonebeds and dinosaur remains—three weeks of prospecting in Alberta | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

  3. Pingback: From foothills to badlands—fossil discoveries in Alberta | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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