Wiffen, Joan 1922(?)-

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WIFFEN, Joan 1922(?)-

PERSONAL: Born c. 1922; married M. A. Wiffen (an electronics technician, deceased); children: Christopher, Judith. Hobbies and other interests: Paleontology.

ADDRESSES: Home—138 Beach Rd., Haumoana, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand.

CAREER: Hawkes Bay Museum, New Zealand, honorary curator of paleontology; lecturer.

AWARDS, HONORS: Honorary science doctorate, Massey University, 1994; C.B.E., 1995, for services to science.


Valley of the Dragons: The Story of New Zealand'sDinosaur Woman, Random Century (Glenfield, New Zealand), 1991.

SIDELIGHTS: Joan Wiffen is a self-trained amateur paleontologist who, together with her husband, pioneered dinosaur hunting in New Zealand. She has been nicknamed "the dragon lady" by professional paleontologists for her discovery of four previously unknown sea creatures, as well as of several dinosaur fossils, in a country most scientists once believed was too small a land mass to support such animals. New Zealand is not quite as big as the state of Colorado, and its turbulent geological history includes having been submerged under the ocean more than once. In an article by Jack McClintock for Discover, Wiffen claimed she was "too ignorant" to know better. Without the benefit of a college education, she relied on her scientific curiosity and her natural instincts, which eventually led to her fossil discoveries.

As a mother of two children, Wiffen became interested in dinosaurs after reading about them to her children. Already an avid rock collector, it was an easy transition for her to begin looking for fossils. Her curiosity grew stronger with each small find, and soon her library included a small collection of books that specialized in the history of reptiles. The more she read, the more she became convinced of the possibility that dinosaurs could have once lived in New Zealand. Her research confirmed her theory when she discovered that there existed evidence that New Zealand once had forests that dated back to the Jurassic period.

About eighty-five million years ago, New Zealand was part of what is referred to as Gondwana, a large mass of land that included South America, Africa, and Australia. The land mass broke apart eventually, leaving New Zealand cut off from all other land masses. Although most paleontologists never considered the possibility that dinosaurs could have existed in New Zealand, Wiffen saw no reason that the large creatures could not have wandered through the forest regions while it was still a part of the super continent of Gondwana.

Due to the instability of New Zealand's land mass caused by frequent earthquakes, which caused the entire island to sink several times beneath the ocean, fossils were very difficult to find. However, Wiffen got lucky one day and discovered an old oil field map in the back of a toy store. The map showed places near a riverbed where fossils had been found. Wiffen was quick to gather around her a group of friends whom she infected with her enthusiasm. Soon they were all exploring the riverbed, where Wiffen claims they found fossils in approximately one in every fifty stones.

It would not be until 1980 that she would find her first exciting fossil, however, a species of mosasaur, which, according to McClintock, is a "massive carnivorous marine reptile that grew to be as long as 45 feet." This particular fossil represents a new genus of a "specific, separate, unknown lineage of mosasaur." Its discovery has made Wiffen famous, but she did not stop there. She has since discovered three other marine reptiles that were previously unknown to scientists.

Wiffen's fossil finds included more than marine reptiles. Her husband brought home a chunk of petrified wood in which Wiffen thought she saw a bone fragment. She did not think too much about it until she and her husband were visiting a museum in Australia. There she recognized a similar fossil, which turned out to be a bone from a dinosaur. Upon arriving home, Wiffen verified that she indeed had a dinosaur bone in her hand. The scientific community did not eagerly respond to Wiffen's discovery at first. They merely assumed that if she did have a dinosaur fossil, it must have washed up on New Zealand's shores from Australia. However, after much research, Wiffen's discoveries have been verified and have been included in many textbooks on the subject. She has also written her own book on her discoveries called Valley of the Dragons: The Story of New Zealand's Dinosaur Woman.



Discover, June, 2000, Jack McClintock, "Romancing the Bone," p. 84.*


Enchanted Learning,http://www.enchantedlearning.com/ (September 16, 2001).

HarperCollins Web site,http://www.harpercollins.co.nz/ (March 14, 2002).

Royal Society of New Zealand Web site,http://www.rsnz.govt.nz/ (January 3, 1998).*