Badlands National Park

20180610_091043Have you ever wanted to travel back in time? The striated mounds and formations of Badlands National Park will take you there—75 million years ago, to be exact. The Badlands are a rugged landscape formed through deposition and erosion. Deposition began 75 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. As time passed, the landscape and climate in western South Dakota changed, dictating the types of sediments that were deposited in the area. Over the years, the place we know as Badlands National Park transformed from ocean to rainforest to swamp to open grassland.

Today, the differing sediment types that accumulated across millions of years are visible thanks to erosion. Beginning around 500,000 years ago, the Cheyenne River flowing out of the Black Hills, a mountainous region to the west of the Park, began to wash away all of those deposited sediments, forming the incredible landscape we call the Badlands. The Badlands are eroding at an astonishing rate of one inch per year, exposing fossils that offer insights from an earlier time. The lowest portions of the Park are the oldest, while the highest peaks are more recent. By and large, the most common fossil found in Badlands National Park is the oreodont, a deer-like herbivore, but rhinoceros, alligator, and ancient sea creatures are also uncovered annually.

I spent two nights in Badlands National Park in June 2018 as part of a longer trip through western South Dakota. We made the most of our time there by attending two ranger-lead programs, embarking on a long loop hike, and stopping at the many overlooks to enjoy the scenic landscape. Along the way, we spotted bighorn sheep and bison and there was no shortage of prairie dogs; we even saw a coyote in camp one morning. We were also reminded by one of the park rangers that half of the Park is after dark! We saw Jupiter and its Galilean moons through a telescope while the ranger explained that when we look up at the stars, we are peering back in time. It can take light thousands of years to travel from a star to earth, so what we see in the night sky reflects a previous time. The lack of city lights in the Badlands makes for ideal star-gazing.

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The best part about Badlands National Park? It is a giant playground! The staff know that human disturbance can’t cause more damage to this quickly eroding landscape than a heavy rainfall. That means you are free to run, jump, and climb off the beaten path, weaving your way through the park any which way you like. In the grand scheme of earth’s existence, the Badlands will only be around for about one million years. You don’t want to miss this vanishing geological treasure!


I’m knocking all 60 National Parks off my bucket list. Be sure to follow Summer, Scientifically for some behind the scenes science and fun from my trips.

A Weekend in Rio

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A marvelous view awaits those who travel to the top of Sugarloaf mountain on the sky trams.

In Rio de Janeiro, mountains come straight out of the ocean. My flight flew in over the ocean with mountains and city views on both sides and before I even landed, I was sold on the incredible natural scenery, which instantly became, and stayed, my favorite part of the city. The mountains in Rio are part of the Serra Do Mar mountain range, which stretches along the southern and southeastern coasts of Brazil. The range initially rose when the South American and African continents split, and continued to rise and shift during two major magmatic, or volcanic, events. Today, the drastically-shaped formations rising from the ocean in Rio are a result of constant erosion from wind and ocean waves.

These incredible formations form the basis for many tourist activities in Rio. I happily jumped at the opportunity to ride a train to the top of Corcovado, where the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue resides. As one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” the statue is a can’t-miss in Rio. It was cloaked in fog when we arrived, but the large restaurant and gift shops at the top of the mountain kept us occupied until the sun exposed the statue’s true height and the sprawling city below. After riding the train back down the mountain, we traveled to the base of another famous, rocky formation: Sugarloaf. A series of sky trams will take passengers to the top of Sugarloaf, but we decided to hike to the first station along a rugged and steep, yet well-maintained trail that winds through classic Atlantic forest vegetation, complete with furry, squirrel-like marmosets. Visitors can purchase snacks and souvenirs at both sky tram stations. Atop Sugarloaf, we watched the sun set beyond Christ the Redeemer and the Serra Do Mar mountains.

Alongside the mountains of Rio are the classic beaches. On a tip from a friend, I stayed in Ipanema and it was there I rented a bike to explore the sandy shore. I biked north the length of Ipanema Beach and continued on to the end of Copacabana. Even in winter, beach-goers are plenty. Between the surfing, swimming, innumerable food and drink stands, and crafters selling products, anyone can kill a day at the beach in Rio. After my bike ride, I took a dip in the Atlantic, the same ocean I grew up visiting some 4000+ miles (~7000+km) south of my childhood vacation spots. The water was warm, but turbulent, a characteristic attributable to Rio’s foundation; parts of the city were built directly on top of marshy, wet areas, placing it exceptionally close to open ocean. This proximity means the waves are great for surfing, but can be quite strong for swimming. A walk along the Ipanema shoreline at dusk concluded my beach day.

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The Candelária Church is the site of several historic events, including the movement to give citizens the right to elect a president through popular vote and the site of the 1993 massacre of eight children by police, which shone a light on police brutality globally.

As the outdoorsy type, it is hard for a metropolis to beat out a natural area when it comes to vacation spots for me. But, I had to do my trip to Rio justice by exploring the city center. Rio was founded in the 1500s and its first city square sits near a port along the coast. In this area, it is easy to catch an Uber, street train (originally built for the 2016 Olympic Games), taxi, or metro to major landmarks in and around the Santa Teresa and Lapa neighborhoods, including the Selaron Steps, Candelária Church, and the newer Museum of Tomorrow. Running through the center of Lapa are its famed arches, which once served as an aqueduct. Today, visitors can ride a trolley on top of the arches for an excellent view of Lapa; the trolley stops in Santa Teresa where several restaurants serve up the city’s most popular dish: feijoada. A stew made with black beans and pork, feijoada is a deliciously rich and filling dish best known in Rio. This area of the city is also well-known for its colorful night life, with live music around every corner.

With its rich culture in dance and art, charming architecture, and sprawling beaches with mountain views, Rio de Janeiro has a little something for everyone. There’s a reason it lives on every travel junkie’s to-visit list; it’s utterly beautiful and simply impossible to get bored in the Marvelous City.

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Serra da Canastra National Park, Minas Gerais, Brazil

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Pampas deer graze in a Cerrado landscape.

The Brazilian Cerrado is a globally unique and quickly vanishing savannah that is home to incredible plant and animal biodiversity. Considered a wooded savannah, the Cerrado is a vast, open landscape interspersed with clumps of dense, woody vegetation. Threatened by over-exploitation through primarily agricultural development, the disappearing Cerrado could take with it charismatic fauna like the maned wolf along with hundreds of plants found only in this region. With over 71,000 hectares, Serra da Canastra National Park is one of the largest tracts of federal land protecting this ecologically special landscape.

In Brazil, federal land is classified into one of many land-use types, ranging from exploitative use of timber and other products to preservation without recreation. The objective of the national park classification is to primarily preserve biodiversity and secondarily provide environmental education and recreational opportunities for citizens and tourists. In Serra da Canastra National Park, visitors can drive a long and winding road through a typically open, rolling Cerrado landscape. Lucky guests will witness giant anteaters toppling over the large termite mounds for a snack; crested caracara and a pair of pampas deer defined the wildlife experience during our drive down the dirt road.

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The Casca D’Anta waterfall in Serra da Canastra National Park.

At the end of the road, we were met with a natural swimming hole and a trailhead. The approximately 2-mile (3.5km) trail wound down a steep mountain, through grassy and woody vegetation. The trail terminated at the base of a 610ft (186m) waterfall. The Casca D’Anta waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region and it was there we took the opportunity to dip our toes into the frigid São Francisco river. Flowing 1,811 miles (2,914km) across Brazil, the São Francisco is the longest river in the country, bringing water, hydroelectric power, and habitat for hundreds of riverine fishes to five states before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Serra da Canastra National Park was initially established to protect the spring where the São Francisco is born as well as the first several miles of the river. The water in the park is remarkably clean and refreshing, and at around 43°F (6°C), taking a dip at the base of the falls is not for the faint of heart. Just bordering the park is a privately-owned swath of land that is protected under a conservation easement. We took the time to hike the short loop trail on the easement, which winds through a forested area past three waterfalls and two large natural swimming holes along the São Francisco.

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Cheese is matured for up to two years in this room at a farm in Minas Gerais.

Outside of the opportunities to explore the natural beauty of the Cerrado, any trip to Minas Gerais would be lacking without exploration into the local culture of cheese-making. Originating during Portuguese exploration of the Brazilian interior, cheese-making has become a tradition passed on through generations. The traditional cheeses are made with raw cow milk and have a mild, salty flavor. Slight differences in taste throughout the region are a result of the differing vegetation that makes up the dairy cow diets. Despite the rich culture surrounding cheese-making in Minas Gerais, few people outside of Brazil have ever heard of this tradition. Changing national laws that regulate where the cheese can be sold within the country helped amplify the product nationally and recently, Minas Gerais cheese is increasingly recognized at an international scale. We visited two cheese makers in the area, one of which offered a small tour of their facilities and both of which offered incredible cheese sampling platters. My favorite had to be a purple cheese that was matured in wine and by the time we left Minas Gerais, there were at least six rounds of expertly-matured cheeses tucked alongside our luggage.

Like all trips to somewhere incredible, the Serra da Canastra National Park weekend was too short. Personally, I call that feeling a good excuse to come back; the cheese and the trails will certainly be waiting!

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The Tayra in a Changing Brazilian Landscape

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Illustration of the Mustelidae Family from Handbook of the Mammals of the World: Volume 1 by Toni Llobet.

While many mammalian species found across Central and South America are declining due to habitat loss, forest fragmentation, and agricultural development, the tayra is trying something different: persistence. The tayra is a medium-sized omnivorous mammal that looks like a mix between a cute teddy bear and a giant weasel. In fact, it is a member of the weasel family (Mustelidae), which includes weasels, otters, wolverines, and a diverse range of other noodle-shaped mammals. It’s this fun-to-look-at species that brought me to Brazil this summer (or winter, depending on which hemisphere you’re reading from). With support from the Brown Graduate Research Fellowship Program through the College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources at Mizzou, I partnered with Assistant Professor Rita Bianchi and her lab to analyze data they collected on the tayra.

The Bianchi Lab Group works extensively on mammalian ecology in Brazil. To achieve their varying objectives, many students use camera trap data. Camera traps are a remote-sensing technology that allow researchers to gather information on exactly where mammals are at specific dates and times. Over the past several years, the Bianchi Lab Group has methodically scattered camera traps throughout state parks and other natural areas in São Paulo State. These camera traps captured images of several mammalian species, including giant anteater, puma, agouti, and of course, tayra! Pairing the date and time stamp from the camera trap images with the camera trap location and species present in the photo, researchers can answer a breadth of questions about when and where animals spend time. Answers to these questions can help scientists and land managers understand the resources needed for species to thrive.

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Two tayra are captured on a camera trap in São Paulo State, Brazil.

Despite a growing shift from natural forest to agriculture throughout Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, tayra seem to be handling increasingly fragmented forests just fine. Why bother looking at data for an animal that we aren’t too concerned about? First, we must understand what a species needs if we are to keep it on the landscape. For example, what type of forests do tayra live in? When are they most active and what foods do they rely on? Can tayra survive in small forest fragments? Answers to these questions allow land managers to ensure tayra needs are met and prevent a future decline. Secondly, other species of mesocarnivore (medium-sized carnivorous and omnivorous mammals) are not faring as well as the tayra. Understanding the specific tayra traits that have allowed it to persist longer in this changing landscape could offer insights on why other species are declining.

Using camera trap data collected by the Bianchi Lab Group, we are working on two objectives: 1) Determine tayra habitat selection and 2) Evaluate tayra activity patterns. The first objective will help us understand where tayra are choosing to spend time, including which type, size, and structure of forest. We can also determine whether the presence of other species, like large predators or potential prey species, dictate where the tayra are on the landscape. The second objective will provide insight on when tayra move around the landscape and whether this activity changes by season. We anticipate this research will provide a much-needed update on tayra ecology in the current Brazilian landscape. Stay tuned to this blog for more insights on life in Brazil, tayra ecology, and other wildlife research.

Hot Springs National Park

When I arrived at Hot Springs National Park, I parallel parked on the side of a relatively busy city street and dropped a few coins in the meter on the curb. As I strolled to the Visitor Center, I passed fountains with steaming water and people, weighed down with as many jugs as they could carry, waiting in line to take their share of the resource.

A fountain in front of Hot Springs National Park office space.

A fountain in front of Hot Springs National Park office space.

A truly unique Park, Hot Springs is the only National Park with:

  1. A town in the middle of it.
  2. Its own brewery.
  3. A resource you can take with you—the water.

The town and National Park are centered on bubbling spring waters, which historically brought people to the site. Native Americans believed the hot springs had healing properties and business minded individuals built the first bathhouses in the early nineteenth century to monetize the resource. Bathhouses competed for customers by offering spa-like services and claiming to have treatments for specific ailments. Sick and sore Americans traveled to Arkansas to bathe in the healing waters, many making multiple trips. But where does the water originate?

Rainwater falling in the area surrounding the hot springs spends thousands of years slowly seeping to somewhere between 6000 and 8000 feet beneath the surface. Here, it is heated by the earth’s fiery hot interior. Cracks in the rock created by several large faults located near Hot Springs offer water collecting deep underground a chance to rapidly escape. The escaping water reaches the surface at a temperature of 143°F. The steaming, safe-to-drink water pouring from fountains scattered throughout the town is at the end of a 4000-year journey.

The Fordyce Bathhouse was transformed into the Park Visitor Center, while another became an art studio and cultural center, one a brewery, and yet another is still functioning as a bathhouse and spa.

The Fordyce Bathhouse was transformed into the Park Visitor Center, while another became an art studio and cultural center, one a brewery, and yet another is still functioning as a bathhouse and spa.

Today, the National Park Service protects the historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row as a cultural treasure. Visitors to the Park can still bathe in the healing waters, but I thought the brewery located in Superior Bathhouse made best use of the water. I tried six brews over my visit:

  • The Beez Kneez
  • McClard’s Barn Burner Farmhouse Ale
  • The Killer Irish Red
  • SPA (Superior Pale Ale)
  • Chaudfontaine Houblon
  • Palomino Extra Pale
The Superior Bathhouse Brewery offers flights of four beers each.

The Superior Bathhouse Brewery offers flights of four beers each.

Naturally, I came to the Park to spend some one-on-one time with nature. Though the Park hub is in the middle of a city, I found some time to hike the 9.6-mile Sunset Trail, the longest trail in the Park. I camped at the only provided campsite, which also offers RV hookups. The town is within walking distance of the campsite.

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If you are looking for wilderness, backcountry camping, and multiple days of hiking, Hot Springs National Park is probably not your best option. But, I found it refreshing and fun and it certainly offers amenities unlike other Park System sites.


I’m knocking all 59 National Parks off my bucket list.  Here’s my latest road trip map, which started at my home in Columbia and ended where I work in Houston, hitting Mammoth Cave and Hot Springs National Parks along the way. #FindYourPark

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky conserves the world’s longest known cave system with 405 mapped cave miles. If outstretched, the caves could reach Chicago, IL or Charlotte, NC from their starting point in Kentucky, but in reality, they weave in and among one another like spaghetti.

Mammoth Cave maintains a constant 54°F temperature year round. New air cycles into the cave every day, seeping in through minute fractures in the rock and pouring out again through openings to the surface. Likewise, water reaches parts of the cave by dripping in through cracks in the sand- and limestone ceiling. When water reaches the cave at an exceptionally slow rate, it helps form wonderful cave structures like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and popcorn.

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The cave continues to grow today as underground river ways deep in the earth eat away at the limestone walls. The cave’s sandstone roof protects its oldest tunnels close to the surface from rapidly collapsing due to surface waters, making it safe for people and wildlife to enter. Once inside, it is possible to experience complete darkness and complete silence. But, wildlife wouldn’t want to live in such a gloomy place, right? Actually, caves support an array of awesome animals.

When I took the Domes and Dripstones Tour at the Park, the first animal I saw was a cave cricket. The most abundant species in the cave, cave crickets have stocky bodies and spindly legs and only visit the surface about two weeks out of the year. The cave offers protection from insect-loving predators that could be skulking above. But, the blind cave beetle that specializes in finding and devouring cave cricket eggs and the cricket-hungry cave salamander are inescapable.

Cave crickets are the most abundant animal in Mammoth Cave

Cave crickets are the most abundant animal in Mammoth Cave.

Lurking in the subterraneous streams are another specialized group of animals. Eyeless cave fish adapted to life in total darkness by losing their pigmented skin and useless eye structures. The endangered Kentucky cave shrimp can also be found deep underground in cave waters.

A fan of fuzzier critters, I enjoyed hearing about the bats that call Mammoth Cave home. Eastern pipestrelle, little brown bats, and big brown bats all use the cave as a refuge while hibernating in winter or during the daytime when they are not outside foraging for food. Indiana bats and gray bats were once common in the cave, but are now listed as endangered species. All species of cave bat that inhabit Mammoth Cave are present in fewer numbers than they were historically, mainly due to an epidemic called white-nose syndrome.

At the Park, white-nose syndrome was first confirmed in a northern long-eared bat.

At the Park, white-nose syndrome was first confirmed in a northern long-eared bat. (Image credit: Steven Thomas, National Park Service)

On the surface, the Park proudly protects 37 square miles of backcountry and several miles of frontcountry trails. I observed deer, songbirds, vultures, hawks, and a black racer while hiking on over 17 miles of maintained backcountry trails.

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Nestled into the hills of south-central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park is worth a visit. With front- and backcountry camping, a hotel, miles of trails suitable for boots, hooves, and bike wheels, and adventurous day-long or shorter, less strenuous cave tours, Mammoth Cave has a little something for everyone.


I’m knocking all 59 National Parks off my bucket list.  Here’s my latest road trip map, which started at my home in Columbia and ended where I work in Houston, hitting Mammoth Cave and Hot Springs National Parks along the way. #FindYourPark