Alberta

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

Wendy on hill, Finding Fossils with Wendy Sloboda- The Badland's Badass Dinosaur Hunter, Devil's Coulee, Alberta, CA-5420

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.

Wendy on hill, Finding Fossils with Wendy Sloboda- The Badland's Badass Dinosaur Hunter, Devil's Coulee, Alberta, CA-5528

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.

Wendiceratops tattoo, My Afternoon with Wendy Sloboda- The Badland's Badass Dinosaur Hunter, Devil's Coulee, Alberta, CA

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 is 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.)

Walking to Little Diablo Hill, Finding Fossils with Wendy Sloboda- The Badland's Badass Dinosaur Hunter, Devil's Coulee, Alberta, CA

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.

Casts of Hadrasaur egg nest, Finding Fossils with Wendy Sloboda- The Badland's Badass Dinosaur Hunter, Devil's Coulee, Alberta, CA

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.

Composite cast of Hadrosaur embryo, Dinosaur embryo femur, Casts of Hadrasaur egg nest, Finding Fossils with Wendy Sloboda- The Badland's Badass Dinosaur Hunter, Devil's Coulee, Alberta, CA

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 fossil of egg shell_Finding Fossils with Wendy Sloboda- The Badland's Badass Dinosaur Hunter, Devil's Coulee, Alberta, CA

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 showing Hadrosaur femur,Wendy points to fossil of egg shell_Finding Fossils with Wendy Sloboda- The Badland's Badass Dinosaur Hunter, Devil's Coulee, Alberta, CA

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.

Dinosaur embryo femur, Finding Fossils with Wendy Sloboda- The Badland's Badass Dinosaur Hunter, Devil's Coulee, Alberta, CA

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.”


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.

On this trip I was a guest of the Canadian Badlands Tourism Board but the words and sentiment are all mine. 

46 replies »

  1. Absolutely a fabulous story, you really captured how AMAZING, gifted & talented Wendy is. She is as remarkable as everyone of her finds!

  2. i enjoyed this story so much about how fossils is amazing to her and how well she does of finding them, if i wasn’t going to be a nurse i would take this job I would love to do something like this, especially with such an engaging guide and tool on the fossils.

  3. I loved reading about Wendy. Imagine having 2 species of dinosaur named for you! I have to admit that I laughed while reading that you made your dermatologist proud. I’m one of those too.

    • Oh good. I’m really glad you liked it. I had fun writing it.

      re: Dermatologist… LOL.. I know.. I feel like such a dork in the moment but always glad I cover up afterward. There’s skin cancer in my family, and I honestly believe my skin looks younger than my age because I’ve taken care of it. I have friends that look older than me and they’re 10 years younger.

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    • Isn’t she though.. Straight out of a movie script! She was fascinating on so many levels. Thanks for the kind words and for checking out the piece. 🙂

  5. Loved this! Next you need to go farther north and a wee bit west to the Burgess Shale fossil fields on the Alberta/BC border. You seem to have a knack for getting into places that others can’t, so it would be really cool to catch a glimpse, through your eyes and storytelling ability, of the new finds off highway 93 where they found fossils during the Kootenay forest fire cleanup. They’ve apparently discovered some true missing link fossils in there… Burgess Shale type fossils that show the oldest backbones and oldest jaws ever. Exciting stuff.

    • I’m going to have to read up on that. That’s fascinating. Thank you so much for giving me a heads up. And thank you for checking out the article. So glad you enjoyed it. Please share if you think others you know would enjoy. 🙂

  6. Wowww…..what a story. Thank you so much for bringing us into Wendy’s world. Love that she is the Mother of the Dinos. I have chills reading this, and it sounds like you did being there in person. What an honor!

    • Thanks Mike! Really appreciate you taking a look. She’s definitely the Mother of Dinos and a real fascinating woman. 🙂

  7. I saved this to show it to my husband. This is the sort of adventure he would love to have. I mean even as a kid I wanted to hunt for fossils and go on epic adventures such as this one. Dream come true, I bet!

    • It was very cool. Definitely point out the Dinosaur Provincial Park day-long excursion with a paleontologist. My friend went and she said it was very cool.

  8. I’d never had much of a fascination with dinosaurs until this recent trip to Broome, Western Australia. There aren’t any fossils in Broome due to the dusty, harsh climate. But there’s an abundance of dinasaur footprints. Like you, with the eggshells, I struggled to see – until it become clear. Then it was a bit of a lightbulb moment – wow!! They really, clearly were dinasaur footprints.

  9. Susan what a great blog I really enjoyed your story thank you for sharing….. super interesting and exciting and such a cool field of work! I am a photographer but have have not yet made it my profession, I hope to be able to make a good living from wildlife and expedition photography would be so great!!! This story has inspired me 🙂
    Thank you!!!

    • Hi Kim –

      Thank you for your kind note. I am so happy that you enjoyed the post. I agree, Wendy’s profession is very cool, but I think a person has to have her instinct for it or it would end up being a lot of time in the hot sun looking at stone. LOL. She’s quite a talent.

      Great about the photography. What do you like to shoot?

    • I’ll be honest Laura, having Wendy take us around was a bit serendipitous. She’s usually in the field and not at the museum. That said, I’ve heard great things about their program and a friend did the dig at Dinosaur Provincial Park and enjoyed it.. (Though it was toasty.)

    • Thank you!! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Please share it if you think friends or family would too. It would be most appreciated. 🙂

Would love to hear from you!