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  • This timeline lets you see aspects of Joan's life and work, and how these fit into a wider science picture of paleontology. A full transcript is underneath.

    Joan Wiffen – paleontologist

    • Changing scientific ideas
    • Advances in science and technology
    • Biography


    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.


    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.


    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 and work to identify discoveries by colleagues and others, 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.


    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.

    Dinosaur fossil found – 1955

    In 1955 geologist and palaeontologist Charles Fleming discovers a piece of bone in Mikonui Stream, Canterbury. Many decades later that piece of bone has been unofficially identified as that of a pterosaur. This date remains tentative as tangata whenua or others may have made earlier, unknown discoveries of pterosaur fossils.

    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: 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: 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: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o 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: Neville Gardner

    Turtle fossils – 1981

    First Cretaceous turtle fossils in New Zealand described from Mangahouanga.

    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

    Trevor Crabtree finds this pterosaur fossil at Mangahouanga. It is identified and published by Joan Wiffen and Ralph Molnar in 1988.

    Charles Fleming’s possible pterosaur bone found in 1955 has yet to be formally identified and described – until such a time, the Crabtree specimen will remain as the first dinosaur fossil found in Aotearoa.
    Image: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    New mosasaurs – 1990

    Joan names two new species of mosasaur found at Mangahouanga – Rikisaurus tehoensis and Mosasaurus flemingi.
    Image: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o 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.

    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. Find out more in this article, Ancient dinosaur footprints discovered near Nelson.

    Work to continue – 2010

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


    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: 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 the Science and Technology Bronze Medal from Royal Society of New Zealand.

    Awarded CBE – 1995

    Joan is made Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

    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: 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.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato Published 23 August 2011, Updated 7 December 2022 Referencing Hub media
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