All hail the Dragon Lady

Joan Wiffen – the Dragon Lady

Joan Wiffen – the Dragon Lady

Joan Wiffen (1922–2009) died on Tuesday. ‘Who?’ I hear you ask. Well, the first person to find a New Zealand dinosaur.

Most women wouldn’t like the title, but she was the Dragon Lady – in her case a term of affection and respect. She wrote about her experiences in Valley of the Dragons: the story of New Zealand’s dinosaur woman (1991).

Up until the 1980s it seemed that dinosaurs had never lived in New Zealand. But as eminent scientist Charles Fleming noted in 1967, ‘the fact that no dinosaurs have been found does not mean they have never been here.’ It was the classic absence of evidence being interpreted as evidence of absence. At the time it was thought that dinosaurs had not spread to the part of Gondwana that split away some 85 million years ago – and which today is New Zealand.

In 1975 Joan, an amateur rock hound, found a fossil bone in marine sediments in a Hawke’s Bay stream bed. Up until then it seemed logical that dinosaur bones – if there were any – were likely to be found in terrestrial sedimentary rocks (river and lake deposits) – after all dinosaurs were land animals.

Joan didn’t think her latest bone looked much like the fossils of marine reptiles. She showed it to Australian vertebrate paleontologist Ralph Molnar who told her it was the tail vertebra of a theropod dinosaur. He presented the finding in a paper to geologists at Victoria University in 1980. Afterwards a man came up to Joan. ‘I’m Charles Fleming,’ he said, ‘and I’m delighted to hear about your dinosaur.’ Apart from that she recalled ‘the reaction was thunderous silence, and general lack of interest or understanding of the geological significance of dinosaurs in New Zealand. What had I expected – a champagne party?’.

Joan Wiffen went on to find other bones that show that 75 million years ago a community of dinosaurs existed including sauropods, theropods and armoured dinosaurs. As this was 10 million years after the split from Gondwana, the dinosaurs would have evolved to be unique New Zealand species. Other researchers have also found a single Jurassic dinosaur fossil (in 1995 near the Waikato River mouth) and in 2003 dinosaur fossils were found on the Chatham Islands.

‘What does it matter?’ you ask. Well, it matters as our evolutionary history is different if we had dinosaurs. It turns out we are (or at least were) more than a land of birds. As scientists know that mammals and dinosaurs lived alongside each other in Gondwana, it is likely that along with the dinosaurs, mammals and other reptiles also hitched a ride on the landmass that broke away.

Our understanding of the evolution of New Zealand’s plants and animals is now very different to what we thought thirty years ago. For example we now also know that crocodiles lived in freshwater lakes 16 million years ago. So far no Mesozoic mammal fossils have been found in New Zealand, but it is probably only a matter of time before they are. If mammal fossils are eventually found, then the question becomes, why did mammals become extinct here when they thrived in most other lands?

Joan’s legacy exposes convential wisdom as being just that – some of what we think to be true now is unlikely to be so in the future.

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Kerryn || July 7th, 2009

    There’s a great clip of Joan and her pals getting stuck into a large fossil-bearing rock in a stream bed here:
    http://www.aucklandmuseum.com/857/joan-wiffen
    Joan gets a mention in the upcoming Hawke’s Bay entry on Te Ara (plug plug).

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