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Joan Wiffen (1922–2009)

These were priceless treasures from the past – and, suddenly, I was hooked. I knew what I wanted – to collect fossils.


Tributes came in from around the world when Joan Wiffen died in 2009. She was the woman who found the first dinosaur fossils in New Zealand and rewrote the way we understand the country’s past. Joan achieved this fame as an amateur scientist, not a professional. She received numerous honours and awards, wrote scientific publications and popular books and had a documentary film made about her life. Yet all this only happened in the later part of her life.

Joan’s early life was typical of many women born in the 1920s. Her parents saw no need for further education, so Joan left school and worked as a clerk, got married, brought up two children and helped her husband on their small farm. It wasn’t until 1972 that a growing interest in rocks and fossils led Joan and her family to visit a remote valley in north-west Hawke’s Bay. Over more than 35 years, the Mangahuoanga Stream yielded many land and marine fossils from the Late Cretaceous period, including dinosaurs.

With no formal scientific training, Joan learnt by experience – how to spot fossils, how to extract them from very hard rock, how to identify them and how to use the fossils to put together a picture of ancient New Zealand. She enlisted the help of dinosaur experts abroad (there were none in this country at the time) to carry out identifications and present findings in scientific journals and at conferences. To start with, being a woman with no scientific qualifications was a real drawback, so Joan concentrated on the fossils and their meaning, and gradually, she became accepted by the professional community. Her willingness to communicate her work to children and the general public also made her widely known. Joan ended up having more widespread recognition than most professional scientists.

Image acknowledgements:
Lloyd Homer, GNS Science
NZPA/John Cowpland
University of Waikato

Radio New Zealand National celebrated Joan Wiffen's life in this programme from Our Changing World.
radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ourchangingworld/20140619 external link

Useful links

The fossil that started the study of dinosaurs is one of Te Papa’s greatest treasures. Dr Hamish Campbell shows us the very first artifact from the giant lizards.
http://channel.tepapa.govt.nz/video/iguanodon-tooth-tales-from-te-papa-episode-12 external link

Timeline transcript

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


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


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


Joan Wiffen’s discoveries show dinosaurs lived in New Zealand after it split away from Gondwana in the Early Cretaceous.

Jurassic dinosaur


Brendan Hayes’s single Jurassic fossil shows dinosaurs lived in New Zealand before it moved away from Gondwana.

Dinosaurs widespread


Fossil bones in the Chatham Islands and fossil footprints near Nelson show dinosaurs were widespread in ancient New Zealand.

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Prehistoric reptiles


Thomas Cockburn-Hood finds marine elasmosaur and mosasaur fossils in South Island.

Hunting for dinosaurs


Geologist Alex McKay searches for fossils in the South Island. Finds fossils of marine reptiles, but no dinosaurs.

Reptile fossils reported


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?


Charles Fleming suggests that dinosaur fossils may exist in New Zealand, they just haven’t been found yet.
Image: GNS Science



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


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


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


Fossil vertebra found, but unable to identify it. In 1979, Australian scientist Dr Ralph Molnar identifies it as from an ankylosaur.
Image: University of Waikato

Plesiosaur skull


Complete skull of plesiosaur found, though not extracted from rock until 1984.

Dinosaur announcement


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


Fossil leaves of Glossopteris found in Southland. This plant is used to identify lands once part of Gondwana.
Image: Neville Gardner

Turtle fossils


First Cretaceous turtle fossils in New Zealand described from Mangahouanga.

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Reptile finds


Dr Ewan Fordyce of Otago University finds almost complete elasmosaur skeleton near Dunedin. Also plesiosaur and mosasaur fossils.

Dinosaur in Antarctica


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


Joan finds first pterosaur fossil at Mangahouanga. It is published by Joan and Ralph Molnar in 1988.
Image: University of Waikato

New mosasaurs


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

Fossil review


With Ralph Molnar, Joan publishes an important review paper: ‘A late Cretaceous polar dinosaur fauna from New Zealand’.

Jurassic dinosaur


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.



Joan finds fossil bone of titanosaur at Mangahouanga.

Crocodiles and mammals


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.
Image acknowledgment: University of Waikato

Chatham Island dinosaurs


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


Footprints of Late Cretaceous sauropods found near Nelson. First evidence of dinosaurs from South Island and first footprints in New Zealand.

Work to continue


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

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Joan born


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


Joins Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Continues to work as a clerk after leaving WAAF in 1944.

Family and farming


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


Joan starts going to art evening class, while Pont does geology. Pont becomes ill, so Joan goes to geology in his place.

Leave farm


Pont becomes very ill, so they leave the farm and move to Haumoana, on the coast near Clive, Hawke’s Bay.

Visit Australia


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


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


Joan visits dinosaur fossil sites in America.
Image: Lloyd Homer GNS Science

Book published


Book Valley of the dragons is published – part autobiography, part description of dinosaurs and other fossils at Mangahouanga.



Joan receives honorary doctorate from Massey University and Science and Technology Bronze Medal from Royal Society of New Zealand.



Joan is made Commander of the British Empire.

Book and film


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


Joan receives Morris Skinner Award from US-based Society of Vertebrate Paleontology for her contributions to scientific knowledge.

Joan dies


Joan dies in Havelock North, aged 87. Tributes sent in from all round the world.

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