Standing on the hill above the ancient nursery, Wendy Sloboda squints into the afternoon sun, her mane of blonde dreadlocks resembling an elaborate tribal headdress. Her short, muscular frame is adorned with tattoos and her lips are pierced. One of many tattoos, an illustration of the parrot-beaked Wendiceratops pinhornensis she discovered and is named after her is inked on her right forearm.
Wendy is more Mad Max than the nerd with a fondness for fossils I’d expected. She’s a living legend in dinosaur circles, known the world over for her sixth sense. A celebrated dinosaur hunter. And a real badass.
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 radiating from the surrounding sandstone is stifling.
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 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.
A patchwork of stone, dried grass and cracked mud covers the terrain, 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 Sloboda’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.
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, 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 Wendy says it’s believed sediment crushed the nests during a flood.
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 microfossils.
Paleontologists assembled the bones from the site, taken from multiple embryos, 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 me, a guide and other travelers down a steep dirt path toward Little Diablo Hill where the first nest was discovered and subsequently excavated. Originally, the hill was 7 feet wider, but years of picks and shovels have whittled it away.
I watch as Wendy walks casually around the old dig as if she’s 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 guide from the museum tells us 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 feel 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. Embarrassed, I nod and stare at the ground as if I figured it out.
“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 percent sure. No adult dinosaur bones have been found in the nests. “The only way to identify them 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. Noncrested 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 start working and I see them. 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 dinosaur hunting. Being here is taking my curiosity to a whole new level.
She finds a femur!
Wendy scans the ground next to her and picks up what looks like a little gray stone and examines it. “This is the top of an embryo’s femur,” she says matter-of-factly. Her eyes dart up and down the slope, then she 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 ask. 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 more than 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 discovered 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 the fossils of a new kind of lizard, and Argentina where a footprint of a meat-eating dinosaur or bird called Barrosopus slobodai was named after her.
I ask how she sees what she sees, 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 it’s 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. 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.
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. When she describes shooting Ultimate Fighting Championships from on top of the cage, 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 scored a winning touchdown.) If someone had actually seen me they would have thought I was nuts. When you find something, it’s just so exciting.”
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 two-hour, 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. You can explore a range trails will give you a sense of what the badlands has to offer including some spectacular views. There’s also a variety of guided tours is also available. Better yet, book a day as an assistant to a paleontologist on an active dig in a part of the park that’s off-limits to visitors.
Royal Tyrrell Museum, 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.
On this trip I was a guest of the Canadian Badlands Tourism Board, but the words and sentiment are all mine.
Also from the Canadian Badlands
My night behind-the-scenes at the Lethbridge Rodeo: Behind the Scenes of a Rodeo and what Makes Cowboy’s tick
My travel mate, Sherry Ott from Ottsworld’s, take on the Badlands: A Handshake in the Canadian Badlands.