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  • Keith Newman

Joan Wiffen - The dinosaur lady

Self taught palaeontologist, Joan Wiffen, known locally as ‘the dinosaur lady’, lived in Beach Rd, Haumoana for much of her life raising two children with her husband Pont.

Joan Wiffen measuring a fossil

Her dig at Maungahouanga in Hawke's Bay was the first known site where it was proven that dinosaurs lived in New Zealand. She was the author and co-author of more than a dozen scientific papers and published the book Valley of the Dragons telling of her life achievements.

Joan Wiffen was born in 1922 and brought up in the King Country and Hawke's Bay during the Depression of the 1930s.

While she only had a brief secondary school education, she became fascinated with the presence of seashells high in the hills around Hawke’s Bay. After serving in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War 2 and for six years as a clerk she married Pont Wiffen in 1953.

They raised their two children at Haumoana and the family hobby was rock collecting, gathered minerals and fossils from throughout New Zealand and Australia.

Following an old geological map indicating reptilian bones in the Te Hoe Valley, Joan found the tail bone of a theropod dinosaur in the Maungahouanga valley in northern Hawke's Bay in 1975.

According to the DominionPost, she went on to find bones from half a dozen other dinosaurs, including an armoured ankylosaur, a hypsilophodont, as well as a pterosaur flying reptile, and marine reptiles, such as mosasaurs and plesiosaurs.

In 1999, she found bone from one of the largest known dinosaurs, a titanosaurid after asking a friend to break open a partly exposed sedimentary rock the size of a rugby ball that she found in the stream bank. "I immediately saw a bone structure inside that looked different from the bone of a marine reptile." Friends and family helped her recover heavy sandstone rock from which she painstakingly extracted the fossils.

Joan Wiffen holding a large fossil

In 1994, she received an honorary doctorate from Massey University and the following year a CBE. In 2004, she accepted the Morris Skinner Award from the United States-based Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology for outstanding and sustained contributions to scientific knowledge.

Her fossil finds are held in the palaeontology collection of GNS Science, with some on loan to Te Papa. A spokesperson at GNS said her scientific endeavours spanned arduous field work, painstaking fossil preparation, taxonomic description and palaeontological interpretation. "Her contributions were extremely important nationally and give New Zealand geographic position, internationally," the institute said.

Joan Wiffen, died aged 87 in July 2009.

Sources: Joan Wiffen dies at 87, Dominion Post, July 29 2009

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