Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Born in 1922, Joan Wiffen was a New Zealand native who loved fossils as a child. Her father believed that higher education was wasted on girls; she ended up serving in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War II and then worked for several years as a clerk. She married in the 1950’s, and after being married for a few years her husband enrolled in Geology night classes. When he became unwell and was unable to attend classes, Joan went in his stead. Wiffen realised she wanted to collect fossils when another student brought a fossil ammonite cemented in mudstone to class.

Believe it or not, once upon a time it was believed dinosaurs did not exist in the New Zealand of 65 million years ago; though Charles Fleming in 1967 had suggested that it could be because no one had yet found anything. That was until Joan Wiffen, along with her husband and a team of volunteers (including a train driver, a junkyard worker and a lawn mower repairman) began searching Mangahouanga Stream in Hawke’s Bay for fossil remains from 1972 onwards. An old geological map had shown that reptilian bones had been found in beds of brackish water in the Te Hoe Valley. At first she found marine fossils, and then in 1975 she found a broken fossil vertebra unlike anything she’d seen before, in a boulder 65 million years old. Palaeontologist Ralph Molnar confirmed identification of the fossil as a tail of a small carnivorous theropod in 1980. Joan Wiffen had discovered New Zealand’s first dinosaur, a carnivore.

Wiffen continued to hunt for fossils in the Mangahouanga Stream, finding many more fossils. These included theropods, a sauropod, a small hypsilophodont, an armoured ankylosaur and a pterosaur. She and Molnar co-authored many papers and in 1994 Wiffen was awarded an honorary doctorate from Massy University as well as the Science & Technology Bronze Medal. In 1995, she was made a Commander of the British Empire in honour of her discoveries and in 2004 she won the Morris Skinner Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Joan Wiffen died in June 2009, at the age of 87. All of her fossil discoveries are held in the palaeontology collection of GNS Science, in Lower Hutt; some of her dinosaur bones are on loan to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Dinosaur bones have since been found in other parts of New Zealand.

Sound file from Joan Wiffen: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/fossils/8/5
Image credit: http://www.oceansofkansas.com/nz-aus/nzjoan2.jpg

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