Wendy Sloboda - the dinosaur hunter

Dinosaurs no longer walk the Earth, but they still run wild in many people’s imaginations. Dinosaur-themed toys and children’s books are seemingly ever popular and the dinosaurs in Jurassic World roared to the top of the global box office this summer.

Having spent more than 30 years hunting or prospecting for dinosaur fossils, Wendy Sloboda (BA ’01) understands the modern appeal of these prehistoric creatures.

“Kids all go through a phase where they love dinosaurs, and some of us just don’t grow out of it,” she says.

Wendy Sloboda’s ability to find dinosaur fossils has earned her international recognition in her field and invitations to join paleontological expeditions in Mongolia, Greenland, Argentina, France and the U.S.

Sloboda’s ability to find dinosaur fossils has earned her international recognition in her field and invitations to join paleontological expeditions in Mongolia, Greenland, Argentina, France and the U.S. Despite travelling the world, southern Alberta remains her favourite place to search, and in 2010 she discovered a new type of horned dinosaur in the Pinhorn Provincial Grazing Reserve near the U.S. border.

“I was out looking for dinosaurs for paleontologists Dr. Michael Ryan and Dr. David Evans when I came across some bones sticking out of a hill. One bone looked like a skull bone, so I collected it and cleaned it up. When Michael and David came out the next summer, they recognized right away that the skull was something different,” recalls Sloboda. “They spent the next few summers digging the bones I found up.”

Evans is with the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and University of Toronto, while Ryan is with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. They named the dinosaur she discovered Wendiceratops pinhornensis in her honour and published their research on it in a PLOS ONE journal article in July 2015.

Wendiceratops means “Wendy’s horned face” and Sloboda couldn’t be prouder of her gnarly namesake. “I thought they might call it Slobodaceratops after my last name since that’s usually what is done. Wendiceratops is even cooler because using my first name makes it very personal,” she says.

Wendiceratops’ memorable look and its scientific importance only add to its cool factor. Estimated to have lived 79 million years ago, Wendiceratops is credited with increasing scientists’ understanding of skull ornamentation evolution in the horned dinosaur group according to the ROM’s website.

“It is important because it ties old and new horned dinosaurs together, kind of like a missing link,” says Sloboda. “The ornamentation on the frill, which is the crest on the back of its neck, is unique. Imagine a triceratops with a shorter nose horn and, instead of having spikes that stand straight up on its frill, the Wendiceratops’ frill ornamentation kind of curls over.”

After the journal article was published, Wendiceratops caught the media’s interest and Sloboda was fielding interview requests and being hailed as a legendary Alberta dinosaur hunter.

“The level of media attention caught all of us off guard. I did interviews for media as far away as Australia and England, and I had to learn how to use Skype for a CNN International interview. I had someone say, ‘I saw you on TV in Dubai,’” says Sloboda.

Sloboda had always told Evans and Ryan that if a dinosaur was ever named after her, she had space on her arm reserved for a tattoo of it. Her Wendiceratops tattoo was finished a week before the journal article was published.

“The media thought the tattoo was great,” she says with a laugh. “I think it’s the personal aspect of this discovery. When I got the dinosaur tattooed on my arm, it showed that it is pretty important to me.”

Dinosaurs’ importance to Sloboda comes from her lifetime of experience with them. Growing up in Warner, Alta., Sloboda and her family enjoyed hiking and finding artifacts in the fossil-rich area. In 1987, Sloboda was still in her teens when she discovered scientifically significant hadrosaur egg fragments at nearby Devil’s Coulee.

“After the dinosaur egg discovery, my interest in fossils blossomed into an obsession. It kind of gave my life direction at an age when you need some direction. I volunteered with Dr. Philip Currie at the hadrosaur nesting site at Devil’s Coulee for the entire summer, and if every kid who loved dinosaurs got to do that, they’d be hooked. He’s one of the most famous paleontologists in the world and just a remarkable person,” she says.

Sloboda worked at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology during the summers as a university student before working full time there for several years. Trained as a paleontological technician, she started her own business, Mesozoic Wrex Repair, in 2001 that provided fieldwork services and fossil preparation, moulding and casting. As her reputation has grown, she is now most in demand for her ability to find fossils.

Sloboda is often asked how she sees fossils where others can’t.

“I collected some fossils this summer and the guys said they would never have seen them, but to me it was really obvious. It is almost like a sixth sense to look that way or look down or go here or go there,” says Sloboda. “Certain stuff just seems to stand out and be more obvious and unusual to me.”

Even if you have the eye for it, a fossil hunter’s working conditions aren’t easy. Sloboda has encountered extreme heat, hail, rain, tornado warnings and rattlesnakes. Still, she describes her annual three weeks in the field every July with Ryan and Evan’s team in southern Alberta as a kind of holiday.

“I stay in a crude tent camp with the researchers, their graduate students and a few volunteers. I walk around for up to eight hours a day looking for dinosaurs. I show them what I find, and they decide what they want to dig,” says Sloboda.

When she’s not in the field, Sloboda is busy balancing her roles as a wife, a mother of two boys and a professional photographer specializing in sports and wildlife. Her family and their four dogs live on a farm that is about a mile away from the house where she grew up in Warner.

Fossil hunting continues to be a family pastime. Her dad will still go out with her on occasion, but it’s now Sloboda’s youngest son who is most likely to accompany her. “I can tell already that he has got the eye,” she says.

In 2016, Sloboda will return to Greenland for an expedition and spend another three weeks in the field in southern Alberta with Ryan and Evans. While others might be daunted by the task of searching for fossils that may not even exist, Sloboda continues to be excited by the possibility.

“Ceratopsian eggs have never been found, so hopefully one day we will,” she says. “When you go out and find a fossil, you’re the first person to ever see it and touch it. It is pretty special and exciting.”