It is thanks to our ‘dinosaur woman’ Joan Wiffen we now know dinosaurs once walked in New Zealand.
Wiffen, an amateur palaeontologist, belonged to rock and mineral club, and attended night classes in geology. Despite the prevailing belief dinosaurs never existed in this country, Joan, her husband and a team of volunteers – including a train driver, junkyard worker and a lawn mower repairman – began searching a site in Hawke’s Bay for fossil remains.
One day in 1975, after several years of searching, Wiffen found a single, broken fossil vertebra unlike anything she’d seen before. Then, while on holiday in Brisbane in 1979, Wiffen stopped by the office of American paleontologist Ralph Molnar. She noticed a fossil bone on his desk that looked familiar. “I have a vertebra like that at home,” Wiffen said. “What is it?”
A dinosaur bone, replied Molnar. Several weeks later he confirmed Wiffen’s fossil belonged to the tail of a small carnivorous theropod.
Joan Wiffen had discovered New Zealand’s first dinosaur.