Joan Wiffen

From "First Pterosaur from New Zealand" in Alcheringa by J. Wiffen and R.E. Molnar

Born in 1922, New Zealand native Joan Wiffin liked fossils as a child, but probably had no reason to think she would study them professionally. Her father thought higher education was wasted on girls, and his views limited her secondary education. During World War II, Joan supported the Allied cause by serving in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force then worked for several years as a clerk. She married in the 1950s and began a fairly conventional existence. Things changed when she reached middle age.

After they had been married for years, Joan's husband Pont enrolled in a geology course, but illness kept him from attending some of his classes, so she went in his place. Wiffen found herself seething with envy when it was some other student who found a beautiful fossil ammonite in a big chunk of mudstone. She also treasured a trilobite she bought for 50 cents from a roadside stall in Queensland. She realized she wanted to collect fossils.

Wiffen's family tagged along on her fossil-hunting trips across New Zealand. Pursuing the fossil hunt as a hobbyist, Wiffen had to pay expenses out of her own pocket, which meant her budget was limited, and the Wiffens clambered over steep terrain, lugging new treasures back to their vehicle.

If a New Zealander hoped to find dinosaur fossils in his or her home country in the 1970s, he or she didn't enjoy much professional encouragement. Although New Zealand had been part of the massive ancient continent of Gondwana, geologists generally believed that the New Zealand piece broke off and drifted away before any of the ruling reptiles reached it. A lonely dissenter from this view was Charles Fleming, who remarked in the late 1960s that maybe the country "didn't have dinosaur fossils" simply because no one had found any yet. But Wiffen had an old geologic map describing reptilian bones in New Zealand's Te Hoe Valley, and she started prospecting close to her own home in the Maungahouanga (also spelled Mangahouanga) Valley. She and her husband began looking in 1972. In 1975, she found a small bone fragment, part of a vertebra, but couldn't positively identify it.

The little bone awaited identification in Wiffen's home for four years. In 1979, she was vacationing in Australia when she dropped by the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. In the office of paleontologist Ralph Molnar, she saw a familiar-looking bone. She asked him what it was. He said it was a dinosaur bone. She told him she had one just like it at home.

Weeks after their exchange, after he had examined the fossil himself, Molnar contacted Wiffen to confirm what she already suspected. She had found a 65-million-year-old tail vertebra of a theropod dinosaur. In other words, not only had this amateur paleontologist found New Zealand's first confirmed dinosaur fossil, she had found a carnivore — a much rarer find than an herbivore.

Wiffen and Molnar began working together, and coauthored several papers, including one describing the first pterosaur fossil discovered in New Zealand. (The pterosaur's ulna appears on this page.) She also found mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, armored ankylosaurs, and several other dinosaur species. In 1994, the daughter of a dad who didn't believe in educating girls was awarded an honorary doctorate from Massy University. In 1995, she was made a Commander of the British Empire in honor of her discoveries. In 2004, she won the Morris Skinner Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

In June 2009, Wiffen died at the age of 87. Many of her fossil finds are housed at GNS Science, a government-owned research organization in New Zealand.

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