Words and images by Susan Portnoy

Finding Fossils with Wendy Sloboda: the Canadian Badlands’ Legendary Dinosaur Hunter

Standing on the hill above the ancient nursery, Wendy Sloboda squints into the afternoon sun, her wild mane of blonde dreadlocks resembling an elaborate headdress. Her short, muscular frame is adorned with tattoos: a naked woman surrounded by roses; a huge dragonfly; a portrait of a dog. An illustration of the parrot-beaked Wendiceratops pinhornensis she discovered and is named after her is inked on her right forearm. There are others I can’t quite make out.

Wendy is more Mad Max than the nerd with a fondness for fossils I’d expected. A living legend, known the world over for her sixth sense. A celebrated dinosaur hunter. And a real badass.

A part of the coulee where nests were found and museum tours take place.

Wendy’s Discovery

We’re in Devil’s Coulee, a 670-acre rocky, desert landscape in southern Alberta, in a region known as the Canadian Badlands. It’s hot. Really hot. The sun is directly overhead, not even shadows offer relief. And the heat given off by the surrounding sandstone isn’t helping.

Unlike Wendy, and feeling far from a badass, I am wearing a wide-brimmed hat, long khaki hiking pants, a t-shirt and a lightweight cream safari jacket with long sleeves I hope will reflect the sun and keep me cool. (No such luck.) I look like a bag lady but my dermatologist would be proud.

The terrain is covered in a patchwork of stone, dried grass and cracked mud reminiscent of the dreaded grayscale that plagued Ser Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones. It’s here that in 1987, barely out of high-school, Wendy’s life changed forever.

While hiking, she discovered the shell of a dinosaur egg, “thin like a chicken egg, black with bumps on it,” and threw the world of Canadian paleontology into a head spin.

Wendy’s tattoo of the dinosaur named after her.

She sent the fragments to the University of Calgary, which in turn sent them to the world-renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller. “They were down here in three days,” Wendy says with a mischievous grin. “To get a government institution going that fast…” She didn’t finish her sentence but I got her drift.

“We spent a month looking for dinosaur eggs. There are dinosaur eggshells all over this area.”

The nests were the first of their kind in Canada and some of the best preserved on the planet. They also found embryonic bones, which was groundbreaking, though not an intact skeleton. Seventy five million years ago, the coulee was a lush river system and researchers believe sediment crushed the nests during a flood.

Charlie

Earlier in the day, I saw a composite cast of an egg and embryo at the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Heritage Museum in Warner, a 10-minute drive from where we stood and Wendy’s hometown. (The museum offers guided, interpretive tours through areas of the coulee off-limits to the public, and a hands-on opportunity to prospect for micro fossils.)

Bones from the site taken from multiple embryos were assembled into one specimen. The egg was as large as a soccer ball and the prehistoric, spiny Frankenstein inside (lovingly called Charlie) was 18 inches long, curled into a fetal position. (See below.)

Wendy leads our group down a steep hill to Devi’s Coulee.

Dinosaur Nest

Wendy leads us down a steep dirt path towards Little Diablo Hill where the first nest was uncovered. Originally, the hill was seven feet wider but years of picks and shovels have whittled it away.

I watch as Wendy walks casually around the old dig as if in her living room. I suppose in many ways, this is her home.

She sits precariously on the side of a grayscale slope to show us eggshells beginning to “erode out” of the soil. Wind, rain and snow strip away layers of earth exposing more fossils, so Wendy periodically inspects the site for new treasures.

A cast of the dinosaur nest uncovered at the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur and Heritage Museum.

We’re told that where we’re standing with Wendy is typically off-limits. She points to a rope a few feet away that keeps visitors on the tour from getting too close, and I get that small surge of excitement one gets when you’re able to do something others cannot.

I quickly learn I have no talent for paleontology. Wendy points to a few speckled rocks sticking out of the ground. “These are eggs. There’s one here, one here and one here, eroding out. There’s a whole series of eggs actually coming out of this horizon. This one is actually quite easy to see.”

I look and I swear I can’t tell the difference between the shell and the nondescript stones next to it.  I ask her to point again and she does, but just far enough away that I’m still not sure which is which. I’m a little embarrassed. I nod and stare at the ground as if I’ve it figured out.

A composite cast of the embryonic hadrosaur pieced together with bones from multiple specimens at the nesting site.

“The kind of dinosaurs we find here are duck-billed dinosaurs,” she says, hovering her fingers over the shells. The researchers believe the fossils are Hadrosaurs but they can’t be 100% sure. No adult dinosaur bones have been found in the nests. “The only way to identify is if they actually had a mother that was on the babies. We do know that these were crested dinosaurs. On crested dinosaurs, they have an ishium [part of the hip] that was booted, which means it looked like a hockey stick. Non-crested Hadrosaurs had a flat ishium. And the little babies, you could see that the hockey stick was just starting to form.”

I look back at where the eggshells are supposed to be and finally my eyes are working and I see. I’m utterly captivated. I’ve always been fascinated by dinosaurs. I’ve strolled countless times through the exhibits at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, but I’ve never been to an actual dig. Being here is taking my curiosity to a whole new level.

Wendy points to the edges of a dinosaur egg-shell eroding through the soil on Little Diablo Hill.

She finds a femur!

Wendy scans the ground next to her and picks up what looks like a little grey stone and examines it. “This is the top of an embryo’s femur,” she says matter of fact. Her eyes dart up and down the slope, then picks up two more pieces near her feet and puts them in her palm in a line to show how they would have fit together.

“Wait, what? That’s a dinosaur embryo’s femur?” I say. I know I heard her correctly, I just needed to say it out loud. She plops a fossil in my palm.

That was it, a tiny glimpse of Wendy’s magic. Her gift. She’s discovered over 3,000 fossils since that fateful day in 1987. Today, they’re in the Royal Tyrrell or Royal Ontario Museums (among others), including her namesake Wendiceratops, a brand-new species of dinosaur she found in 2010. In 1997, she uncovered fossilized T Rex poop in Saskatchewan containing remnants of soft tissue from the dinosaur the predator had feasted on.

Her keen eye has taken her to Mongolia’s Gobi Desert where she found a new kind of lizard, and Argentina where a footprint of a meat-eating dinosaur or bird called Barrosopus slobodai was named after her.

Wendy shows us an embryonic femur she discovered during our chat.

I ask what she sees, what she looks for, and it’s the first time she struggles for an answer. “I’ve been told that I have a very unusual eye for finding stuff. I don’t know, like I found six dinosaurs this summer. My eyes notice things differently. People ask me, ‘what do you look for?’, and I don’t know what it is. It’s like they have a sign that says “pick me pick me!”

I look down at the fossil in my hand. It’s very light and looks like bone. Rubbing it with my thumb I feel a gritty texture as if covered in a layer of fine sandpaper. It’s crazy to think that 75 million years ago this tiny piece of bone was part of a would-be dinosaur. My mind reels trying to wrap itself around 75. MILLION. YEARS. Too many really to fathom. I’m in awe that I’m being allowed to hold it.

I secretly fantasize that she lets me take it home. I start thinking about where I’d display it in my apartment when she asks for it back. Though I completely understand, I’m still a little bummed. She sticks the femur in her shorts’ pocket.

A museum staff member jokes that anyone other than Wendy would have had to get permission from the Royal Tyrrell Museum to move the bones from their resting place. But not Wendy, it’s clear that here she’s the Mother of Dinosaurs. She can do whatever she wants. She knows how to handle them, in 2001 Wendy founded Mesozoic Wrex Repair, a fossil preparation and casting company.

The top of a hadrosaur embryonic femur – It was an amazing experience to hold it in my hand.

I’ve been in the Badlands for two days now and it occurs to me that Wendy embodies much of what intrigues me about this region: she’s beautiful, rugged, surprising, and mysterious with an intriguing history.

Wendy is also a wife, a mother of two, and a professional photographer specializing in high action sports and wildlife. She describes shooting Ultimate Fighting competitions from on top of the cage, and her love for being in the heart of the action is palpable. She admits she’s hooked on the adrenaline rush and I wonder how being alone for hours in the wilderness searching for dinosaurs compares? What does she find so appealing?

“When you find a bone and touch it and see it and you’re the first person EVER to touch that bone and see that bone, no matter how insignificant a fossil, it’s a high! Like when I found dinosaurs this summer, I was like YEAHHHHH! (Gesturing as if she’d made a championship touchdown.) If someone had actually seen me they would have thought I was nuts. When you find something, it’s just so exciting.”

 

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How you can indulge your inner paleontologist

The Canadian Badlands is a dinosaur lover’s dream. For those who want to indulge their inner paleontologist visit these prehistoric wonderlands.

Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur and Heritage Museum, Warner, Alberta.

Learn about Canada’s first and best preserved dinosaur nests with a 2 hr, fully guided tour through the site where Wendy Sloboda made her discovery.

Dinosaur Provincial Park, near Brooks, Alberta

Two hours north of Devil’s Coulee is Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the most prolific locations for fossils on the planet. In addition to a range of trails you can explore that will give you a sense of what the badlands has to offer including some spectacular views. There’s also a variety of guided tours available. Better yet, book a day with a paleontologist as an assistant on an active dig in a part of the park that’s off-limits to visitors.

Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Drumheller, Alberta

One of best dinosaur museums in the world. It’s easy to spend all day roaming its exhibits, many of which are populated by Wendy’s discoveries.

Susan Portnoy is an award-winning photographer, freelance travel writer, and creator of The Insatiable Traveler. Her popular blog celebrates the magic of world travel by pairing great storytelling with lush photography along with travel and photography tips. Susan seeks to transport, immerse and excite readers with her stories and inspire them to embrace adventure and connect with the people and places they visit.

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