Stories of discovery: Devil’s Coulee nesting site

Editor’s note: We continue our series highlighting significant fossil discoveries found by members of the public. Remember, if you find a fossil, follow these instructions.

1987: Devil’s Coulee Nesting Site (TMP 1987.003.0003)

Technician Dawna Macleod poses with a prepared hadrosaur nest from Devil’s Coulee. Source: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

Wendy Sloboda spent much of her youth exploring the Warner area of southern Alberta. As a high school student in 1986, she worked as an assistant under the direction of Dr. Len Hills at the University of Calgary on a palaeontological impact assessment for a proposed dam near Milk River. She came across abundant dinosaur eggshell fragments on the Milk River Ridge near her home, and reported them to Dr. Hills. A team from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, including Dr. Philip Currie, visited the site with Wendy and her parents to inspect the find.

The Devil’s Coulee Provincial Historic Site. Source: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

Museum staff were hopeful they would find nests in the area, based on recent finds just over the border in Montana by American palaeontologist Dr. Jack Horner’s team. Wendy had planned to start a position in the palaeontology lab at the University of Calgary that summer, but her excitement assisting with the Museum’s crew swayed the decision, and she stayed on as a volunteer with Dr. Currie instead. While prospecting at the site over the summer, she also found a duck-billed dinosaur footprint with skin impressions from the bottom of the foot.

Wendy Sloboda collecting eggshell fragments in Devil’s Coulee. Source: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

Over the course of a week, the crew found more than a dozen eggshell-producing sites across the area, but had yet to discover baby dinosaurs. Near the end of June, Dr. Currie found nests along the ridge, and one of the crew members stumbled upon a hillside covered in baby dinosaur bones. On the last day of their expedition, they received permission from a local landowner to investigate Devil’s Coulee. During their lunch break, Museum technician Kevin Aulenback came running toward his fellow crew members, excitedly yelling and calling them over. When they arrived at the spot, they found broken eggs with dinosaur fetuses curled up inside, many perfectly preserved.

Kevin Aulenback during an excavation. Source: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

The landowner prevented the crew from returning to the site, but they later regained access to the land when it was sold to the Government of Alberta. It was subsequently designated a Provincial Historic Site. Excavation revealed eight more nests with embryos, and dozens of isolated bones. These fossilized nests, eggs, and embryonic remains were from a new species of duck-billed dinosaur, later named Hypacrosaurus stebingeri. Th­­e discovery was the first of its kind and attracted international media attention. The resulting evidence allowed scientists to understand that these animals nested communally and cared for their young.

Cast of Hypacrosaurus embryo curled in its egg from Devil’s Coulee. Source: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

Today, the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Heritage Museum in Warner, Alberta leads tours to the original site of discovery. Wendy Sloboda remains actively involved in palaeontology. Her subsequent discoveries have included one of the largest Tyrannosaurus rex coprolites, the first fossilized turtle with eggs preserved inside, and a ceratopsian named in her honour, Wendiceratops.

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