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Joan Wiffen (1922–2009)

Joan Wiffen

Field:
Paleontology

These were priceless treasures from the past – and, suddenly, I was hooked. I knew what I wanted – to collect fossils.

Profile

Tributes came in from around the world when Joan Wiffen died in 2009. She was the woman who found the first dinosaur fossils in New Zealand and rewrote the way we understand the country’s past. Joan achieved this fame as an amateur scientist, not a professional. She received numerous honours and awards, wrote scientific publications and popular books and had a documentary film made about her life. Yet all this only happened in the later part of her life.

Joan’s early life was typical of many women born in the 1920s. Her parents saw no need for further education, so Joan left school and worked as a clerk, got married, brought up two children and helped her husband on their small farm. It wasn’t until 1972 that a growing interest in rocks and fossils led Joan and her family to visit a remote valley in north-west Hawke’s Bay. Over more than 35 years, the Mangahuoanga Stream yielded many land and marine fossils from the Late Cretaceous period, including dinosaurs.

With no formal scientific training, Joan learnt by experience – how to spot fossils, how to extract them from very hard rock, how to identify them and how to use the fossils to put together a picture of ancient New Zealand. She enlisted the help of dinosaur experts abroad (there were none in this country at the time) to carry out identifications and present findings in scientific journals and at conferences. To start with, being a woman with no scientific qualifications was a real drawback, so Joan concentrated on the fossils and their meaning, and gradually, she became accepted by the professional community. Her willingness to communicate her work to children and the general public also made her widely known. Joan ended up having more widespread recognition than most professional scientists.

Image acknowledgements:
Lloyd Homer, GNS Science
NZPA/John Cowpland
University of Waikato

Timeline transcript

Changing scientific ideas

Each specialised field of science has key ideas and ways of doing things. Over time, these ideas and techniques can be revised or replaced in the light of new research. Most changes to key science ideas are only accepted gradually, tested through research by many people.

Advances in science and technology

All scientists build their research and theories on the knowledge of earlier scientists, and their work will inform other scientists in the future. A scientist may publish hundreds of scientific reports, but only a few are mentioned here.

Biography

This part of the timeline outlines just a few events in the personal life of the featured person, some of which influenced their work as a scientist.

CHANGING SCIENTIFIC IDEAS

Ancient Gondwana

1960

Ancient continent of Gondwana thought to be made up of South America, Africa, India, Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand. Dinosaur fossils have been found everywhere except Antarctica and New Zealand.

No dinosaurs in New Zealand

1970

No dinosaur fossils have been found in New Zealand. Perhaps they never lived in this part of Gondwana, or they did live here but no evidence has been found yet.

Dinosaurs in New Zealand

1980

Joan Wiffen’s discoveries show dinosaurs lived in New Zealand after it split away from Gondwana in the Early Cretaceous.

Jurassic dinosaur

1995

Brendan Hayes’s single Jurassic fossil shows dinosaurs lived in New Zealand before it moved away from Gondwana.

Dinosaurs widespread

2009

Fossil bones in the Chatham Islands and fossil footprints near Nelson show dinosaurs were widespread in ancient New Zealand.

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ADVANCES IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

Prehistoric reptiles

1869

Thomas Cockburn-Hood finds marine elasmosaur and mosasaur fossils in South Island.

Hunting for dinosaurs

1873

Geologist Alex McKay searches for fossils in the South Island. Finds fossils of marine reptiles, but no dinosaurs.

Reptile fossils reported

1958

An oil company survey by Don Haw reports reptile fossils near the Mangahouanga Valley in Hawke’s Bay. No-one follows this up at the time, but it stimulates Joan Wiffen to search the area in the 1970s.

Where are New Zealand dinosaurs?

1967

Charles Fleming suggests that dinosaur fossils may exist in New Zealand, they just haven’t been found yet.
Image acknowledgement: GNS Science

Mangahouanga

1972

Joan and Pont Wiffen’s first trip to Mangahouanga, inland Hawke’s Bay. They find many fossils in Late Cretaceous rocks, including fish, shark, belemnites, molluscs.
Image acknowledgement: Julian Thomson, GNS Science

First fossil bone

1973

Return visits continue to turn up many marine fossils, including species not found in New Zealand (or anywhere else) before. Pont finds first fossil bone (plesiosaur vertebra).

Important finds

1974

Find mosasaur skull (given scientific name Moanasaurus mangahouagae in 1980) and an unusual fossil that is later identified as toe bone of small dinosaur (therapod).

New vertebra

1975

Fossil vertebra found, but unable to identify it. In 1979, Australian scientist Dr Ralph Molnar identifies it as from an ankylosaur.
Image acknowledgement: University of Waikato

Plesiosaur skull

1978

Complete skull of plesiosaur found, though not extracted from rock until 1984.

Dinosaur announcement

1980

Dr Ralph Molnar gives first talk about dinosaur fossil finds in New Zealand at conference in Wellington – there are no local experts to do this. Little response from scientists, but great response from public.

Gondwana evidence

1980

Fossil leaves of Glossopteris found in Southland. This plant is used to identify lands once part of Gondwana.
Image acknowledgement: Neville Gardner

Turtle fossils

1981

First Cretaceous turtle fossils in New Zealand described from Mangahouanga.

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Reptile finds

1983

Dr Ewan Fordyce of Otago University finds almost complete elasmosaur skeleton near Dunedin. Also plesiosaur and mosasaur fossils.

Dinosaur in Antarctica

1986

First dinosaur fossil (from an ankylosaur) found in Antarctica. This means that dinosaur fossils have now been found in all lands that once made up Gondwana.

Flying reptile

1987

Joan finds first pterosaur fossil at Mangahouanga. It is published by Joan and Ralph Molnar in 1988.
Image acknowledgement: University of Waikato

New mosasaurs

1990

Joan names two new species of mosasaur found at Mangahouanga – Rikisaurus tehoensis and Mosasaurus flemingi.
Image acknowledgement: University of Waikato

Fossil review

1994

With Ralph Molnar, Joan publishes an important review paper: ‘A late Cretaceous polar dinosaur fauna from New Zealand’.

Jurassic dinosaur

1995

Brendan Hayes finds single fossil bone from small therapod near mouth of Waikato River. This is the only Jurassic period dinosaur found in New Zealand, 70 million years older than the Hawke’s Bay fossils.

Titanosaur

1999

Joan finds fossil bone of titanosaur at Mangahouanga.

Crocodiles and mammals

2001

Trevor Worthy and an international team find new Miocene fossils in Central Otago. These include a crocodile and New Zealand’s earliest (tiny) mammal, which was not announced until 2006.
Image acknowledgment: University of Waikato

Chatham Island dinosaurs

2003

Jeffery Stilwell, Chris Consoli and others of Monash University, Melbourne, find fossil bones from small theropod dinosaur in Chatham Islands.

Dinosaur footprints in New Zealand

2009

Footprints of Late Cretaceous sauropods found near Nelson. First evidence of dinosaurs from South Island and first footprints in New Zealand.

Work to continue

2010

Scientists from GNS visit Mangahouanga and meet with landowners to consider ways of continuing Joan’s investigations.
Image acknowledgement: Julian Thomson, GNS Science

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BIOGRAPHY

Joan born

1922

Brought up in King Country and Hawke’s Bay. Original surname is Pedersen, but she becomes well known later under her married name, Wiffen.

Joins WAAF

1938

Joins Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Continues to work as a clerk after leaving WAAF in 1944.

Family and farming

1953

Marries M A Wiffen, known as ‘Pont’, a technician at local radio station. They later move to small farm in Hawke’s Bay. Joan works on farm and in the home, bringing up two children. Pont continues with electronics work as well.

Evening classes

1961

Joan starts going to art evening class, while Pont does geology. Pont becomes ill, so Joan goes to geology in his place.

Leave farm

1963

Pont becomes very ill, so they leave the farm and move to Haumoana, on the coast near Clive, Hawke’s Bay.

Visit Australia

1968

After Pont’s recovery, they did some mineral and rock collecting during a 7-month stay in Australia. Joan gets ‘fossil hunting bug’, and family visits many New Zealand fossil sites over next few years.

Mangahouanga hut

1974

Build hut to stay in when working at Mangahouanga, with other members of a growing team from the Hawke’s Bay Paleontological Group.

Visit to America

1983

Joan visits dinosaur fossil sites in America.
Image acknowledgement: Lloyd Homer GNS Science

Book published

1991

Book Valley of the dragons is published – part autobiography, part description of dinosaurs and other fossils at Mangahouanga.

Awards

1994

Joan receives honorary doctorate from Massey University and Science and Technology Bronze Medal from Royal Society of New Zealand.

CBE

1995

Joan is made Commander of the British Empire.

Book and film

2002

Joan publishes book Dinosaur New Zealand with writer and artist Geoffrey Cox. Joan’s achievements celebrated in Red Sky’s documentary film The lost dinosaurs of New Zealand.
Image acknowledgement: NZPA

American award

2004

Joan receives Morris Skinner Award from US-based Society of Vertebrate Paleontology for her contributions to scientific knowledge.

Joan dies

2009

Joan dies in Havelock North, aged 87. Tributes sent in from all round the world.

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