I like to think, that every location I have been writing about in the past years was a discovery of some sort. This story will be about the discovery somebody else made. Wendy Sloboda is maybe the coolest dino hunter of our time. She has tattoos, dreads and she found a new species of dinosaur, that now carries her name: the Wendiceratops Pinhornensis.
I regularly work for one of Europe’s biggest science TV shows and try to find interesting topics worldwide. In 2015 I have heard the news about the discovery of a new kind of dinosaur. A crew of scientists presented a new dino species from South Alberta and named it Wendiceratops Pinhornensis after the person, who made the discovery: Wendy Sloboda. Strong story, great character, exotic destination – all the ingredients for an interesting piece of television. So I talked to the station and got in touch with Wendy.
Wendy was born in Alberta and still lives in the wide planes of southwest of Canada. It’s a very unpopulated area, which is geographically characterized as flat with few trees and hills. It’s the end of landmass created in the last glacial period, if I am not mistaken. There is so much land that it was never used by humans. It’s ideal for finding fossils, sometimes it is barely covered by soil.
For kids it is a giant playfield and therefore Wendy went exploring at a very young age. And she was starting to find things very soon. First she was interested in prehistoric men, but bit by bit she grew her interest for dinosaurs.
She found bones and teeth in large numbers and as a teenager she had her first big acknowledgement, when she found a breeding area of ducktail dinosaurs with eggs, which had complete embryo-fossils in it. The place of discovery is called Devil’s Coulee and it is still a very active excavation site.
It is not far from Wendys own farm, where she lives with her husband and two kids. This Palaeontological Reserve means so much to her, that she even married her husband there stating: “Dinosaurs are my love, my life, my everything.”
Wendy Sloboda also works as wildlife photographers and so she goes on exploration almost daily with her trustful dog Quigley. You must be a loner with a strong connection to nature to have the patience and endurance to go on expedition. Her fellow paleontologists love to work with Wendy as she appears to have some sort of sixth sense for new discoveries. Her eyes catch textures, a colour or reflection and she is intuitively drawn to the point of something interesting.
One of my favourite shots on this journey is a photo of Quigley on a rock. But actually it's no rock, it is the giant positive footprint of a ducktale dinosaur. Other than a negative footprint, this rock really looks like a foot. The dog certainly has captured some of the abilities of Wendy and loves to explore with her for hours in the wild.
In the interview with me Wendy said something very interesting about the magic of finding a fossil: “Every bone you find will be the first time a human being put his eyes and hands on. It is always a fresh discovery – always!“
By title she is a technician, who supports the paleontologists in their work. Whenever she finds something, she tries to explore it further. She is propping bones under the microscope in her own lab at home. In the wintertime she is also doing prep-work for museums. In her lab she put the hands on her biggest discovery to date. She realized, that she had something totally new under the magnifying glass.
When her advising paleontologists David Evans from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto and Michael Ryan from the Cleveland Museum heard the news they instantly joined her on a larger dig in the Pinhorn Provincial Grazing Reserve in South Alberta. It’s there, where a group of four dinosaurs laid down to die and which gave the Wendiceratops gave the appendix of Pirnhornensis.
The 200 bones they found were nothing short of a paleontological sensation. Wendiceratops Pirnhornensis is one of the oldest relative of the famous triceratops and belongs to the group of the horned face dinosaurs.
He lived approximately 80 million years ago an was roughly 6 meters long. He ate plants and most likely went from North America to Asia and more or less laid the foundation for the Asian Horned Face Dinosaurs.
It is quite unusual, actually unheard of, that a dinosaur is named after the first name of a scientist. But it was never more fitting as in the case of Wendy. First of all she had discovered many species of prehistoric animals and she has been doing the job more then 30 years. And most importantly with her crazy dreadlocks she very much like the dinosaur she found. So for the other scientists involved it was clear decision. When she heard the news she was up in the clouds. It was like a dream come true.
So for quite some time Wendy saved a spot on her arm for an additional tattoo. A tattoo of her very own dinosaur. She got the original artwork from Danielle Dufout, the designer at the Royal Ontario Museum, which is a real interesting job by the way. Because these artists shape the image of a new species forever. Unfortunately I messed up the distance to her arm at the attempt shooting her tattoo. Sometimes the zone focusing makes it hard for such details...
The process in the case of Wendiceratops from first findings to the final announcement was more than five years in which everybody involved has to be secretive. For scientists the moment of revealing a new and groundbreaking discovery is very important for their standing in the scientific community which is important for their reputation and eventually supporting funds.
For our shooting we went once again to Devil's Coulee of her first big discovery. Instantly she saw bones exposed to the air and headed straight to the skeleton of a ducktai dinosaur. She always has knives, brushes and gypsona with her. Over time she instinctively know how far she can stab into the ground, to go deep enough but not to harm the fossil, which are many million years old.
There was a little bit of magic in the air when she brushed around the bones. For her it's everyday business. For me it was the first dino at the very place he died, which makes it very intimate for the interested observer. I wonder what her dog Quigley things, when she takes out bones. Quite the opposite, what a dog would do...
Now the home of the Wendiceratops is the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. The discovery was curated by David Evans and has almost a room of it’s own. I gladly flew to the other side of Canada to finally meet the Wendiceratops head to bone. By then I had the feeling, we would know each other for quite some time. At least I knew his founder. The mother of dinosaurs.
The kids love the new Dinosaur and the media was really interested in the back story with Wendy, as she is just a little bit more punk than your ordinary paleontologist. And honestly she really has the fun part, too. The first traces of the Wendiceratops were discovered in 2010, but everything had to be verified, prepared and cross checked, before the Wendiceratops was finally introduced to the world. And finally Wendy could get her tattoo and the admiration of the science-savvy world.
Being a dino hunter doesn’t make you rich. It is more or less a volunteering job and you receive gas money. But when she stood her ground and is regularly invited to expeditions in South America or Greenland. Who needs riches, when you are immortal?
Wendy's name is now in the history books of dinosaurs. She lives the dream of every explorer to find a species of your own and to have your name attached to your discovery. She has all my admiration.
And she will continue. Wendy says, that she will be in the field as long as she is physically capable and estimate at least another thirty years. That is plenty enough time to find a new dinosaur in South Alberta.