New Zealand’s dinosaur expert passes away

Dinosaur toe bone found by Joan Wiffen

Dinosaur toe fossil found by Joan Wiffen

Joan Wiffen, who found hard evidence that dinosaurs had inhabited New Zealand, died this month aged 87.

I’m not a scientist, but I do have an interest in the history of science, and even I can see that Wiffen made historically significant and far-reaching contributions to scientific thinking.

First findings

In 1975, Wiffen found something remarkable in a remote stream in nothern Hawkes Bay – a fossilised tail ‘bone’ of a therapod. A therapod was a large (four metres long) meat-eating, two-legged dinosaur related to the tyrannosaur.

It took four years for the specimen to be identified but the wait proved something previously unthinkable: that dinosaurs had inhabited New Zealand, or at least its geological predecessor. This meant that there was a past connection to Gondwanaland.  

Nickname from work

Joan Wiffen, who was a self-taught scientist, gained the nickname the ‘Dinosaur Lady’ for obvious reasons. She also received formal awards, like an honorary doctorate, for her contributions to vertebrate palaeontology.

Find out more

Some of the fossils that Wiffen discovered are displayed in Awesome Forces at Te Papa. Many museum staff have fond memories of working with her on exhibitions. More details about Joan Wiffen’s life and work are on the National Library website.

In a chapter about ‘Zealandian Dinosaurs’, in their book In Search of Ancient New Zealand (2007), Hamish Campbell and Gerard Hutching also discuss the importance of Wiffen’s discoveries.

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