Q & A With One of the World’s Best Fossil Hunters

Wendy Sloboda, Alberta's resident fossil finder, shares how she's made important paleontological discoveries in the province and around the world.

Drumheller, photograph by ronniechua/iStock.

Wendy Sloboda has a unique talent among dinosaur hunters. Although she has no formal training as a scientist, the 51-year-old has made hundreds of important discoveries of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures, earning a reputation as one of world’s best fossil finders.

Her notable discoveries over the years include the fossilized skulls of an armour-plated ankylosaurus, an ancient type of crocodile, and a flying reptile known as a pterosaur. In southern Alberta in 2010, she discovered the remains of a new species of horned dinosaur, which was named Wendiceratops pinhornensis in her honour. To celebrate, Sloboda had an image of the beast tattooed on her right forearm.

When not hunting bones, the Warner, Alta., native freelances as a sports and wildlife photographer and is the mother of two teenage boys. Sloboda and her family live on a farm just two kilometres from the house where she grew up.

Wendy Slobodav, illustration by Cristian Fowlie.

When did you get hooked on fossil hunting?

I had my first big find when I was 18. I discovered dinosaur eggs with embryos at Devil’s Coulee in 1987. It was the biggest paleontological discovery in Alberta in 50 years. Searching for fossils became an obsession for me after that.

What scientific training do you have?

I worked as a technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., for 16 years. We excavate the fossils, transport them, clean them and cast them. We do everything but write the paper.

Where have you hunted for fossils?

Mongolia, Greenland, France, Montana, Argentina, northern British Columbia and all over Alberta. My favourite spot is southeastern Alberta. I love the solitude. It’s big and empty with rolling hills and canyons. I travel with my dog, an Australian terrier named Quigley. He can go all day, just like me. I’ll average 15 to 20 km. It’s up and down over steep terrain. To find fossils you have to cover ground.

How are you able to find fossils that others don’t?

I look for tells—changes in colour, where a streambed used to be. I might see a bone by the way it glints in the sun. You look for something that doesn’t belong. Sometimes, I just go by instinct.

How many fossils will you find on a typical expedition?

I find about 90 to 95 per cent of what the paleontologists work on. I come back to camp with samples and co-ordinates and they decide what to dig. Excavating a dinosaur can take two to three years. In Alberta, there are 10 dinosaurs that I have found, that haven’t been excavated yet.

What species are on your personal bucket list?

I’d like to find a caenagnathus. It’s a small, fast-moving dinosaur with bird-like features. No full skeleton of it has ever been found in Alberta. I’d also like to find a baby ankylosaurus, a baby ceratopsian and ceratopsian eggs. Actually, eggs from anything.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

When you find a fossil, you’re the first person to ever see it and touch it. It’s pretty special.

[This story appears in the September 2019 edition of WestJet Magazine.]