Digging up the history behind New Zealand’s first dinosaur

By Guest Author 26/02/2015

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the first dinosaur bone being discovered in New Zealand. One of the remarkable aspects of this discovery is that it was driven by an amateur fossil hunter, Joan Wiffen.

Joan’s story and fossils now mark her as an important figure in New Zealand science, and the 40th anniversary of Joan’s first dinosaur find is a great reason to revisit her achievements.

Determination, dedication, and a dash of luck are what you need if you are looking for dinosaurs. In 1972 Joan Wiffen considered herself a ‘typical non-working wife’, having only a ‘brief encounter with formal education’. When her husband Pont became ill, Joan attended an after-hours geology class in Pont’s place and became fascinated with fossils. Joan and family went fossil hunting in a whole host of places, and eventually acquired a map showing fossil locations in her local Hawke’s Bay.

‘The map was too big for the small coffee table and the kitchen table was still covered with the Sunday lunch dishes…’

Joan Wiffen’s story about discovering New Zealand dinosaurs plays on  a television screen in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Joan Wiffen’s story about discovering New Zealand dinosaurs plays on
a television screen in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

While reading the map Joan noticed a small comment – ‘Reptilian bones in beds of brackish water in the Te Hoe Valley’. Joan imagined dinosaur bones, despite the fact that the rocks in Te Hoe Valley had formed underwater, where dinosaurs did not live. Joan rounded up field gear and a field crew (including husband Pont) and set off after her dinosaurs. The team were finding ancient bones almost immediately, mostly of long-extinct sea creatures – mosasaurs and plesiosaurs – and eventually in 1975, the team found a dinosaur. The first New Zealand dinosaur bone ever found, and it was from a two-legged meat-eater that is a not-so-distant- relative of T-rex. Over the next few decades Joan, her field crew, and her long-time collaborator Ralph Molnar (Queensland Museum, Australia) would show us that at least five species of dinosaur lived in ancient New Zealand – both meat-eaters and plant-eaters.

Joan Wiffen in 1922  Credit: Wikimedia
Joan Wiffen in 1922 Credit: Wikimedia

Between seeing the comment about Te Hoe Valley and unearthing the fifth New Zealand dinosaur, Joan would learn fossil collection techniques, specialised fossil preparation methods, vertebrate anatomy, and whole host of other skills and talents. Joan’s achievements would be recognised with scientific publications, an award from an international scientific society (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology), an honorary doctorate from Massey University, and an appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Despite her ‘brief encounter with formal education’, Joan Wiffen gave us an unsurpassed glimpse into dinosaurian life in ancient New Zealand.

Joan Wiffen passed away in 2009 at age 87. I never met Joan, but her discoveries greatly influenced my decision to become a vertebrate paleontologist. I grew up knowing that dinosaurs once prowled New Zealand, all because Joan Wiffen wanted to find dinosaurs in Hawke’s Bay.

Dr Daniel Thomas is a lecturer in zoology in the Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at Massey University. His main research interests are ornithology, evolutionary biology and applied chemistry. He also has a personal blog where he writes about fossils.

Related Reference

Wiffen, J. 1991. Valley of the Dragons. The story of New Zealand’s dinosaur woman.

Random Century New Zealand: Auckland.

Check out Daniel’s blog