Romancing The Bone – amateur paleontologist Joan Wiffen was the first to discover dinosaur fossils in New Zealand, including four previously unknown sea monsters

Romancing The Bone – amateur paleontologist Joan Wiffen was the first to discover dinosaur fossils in New Zealand, including four previously unknown sea monsters

JACK McCLINTOCK

HOW AN AMATEUR FOSSIL HOUND UNEARTHED DINOSAUR REMAINS IN A MOST UNLIKELY PLACE AND ROCKED THE WORLD OF PALEONTOLOGY

Belted into the seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser piloted by a friend, 78-year-old Joan Wiffen heads for the outback on a sunny morning. She hangs on tight, tugging her blue hat lower as she bounces through the heavily forested New Zealand countryside. Then, out of the car, she grabs a walking stick and tramps through shady glades of fern, beech trees, and silver ferns, fending off cutty grass that slashes the skin and lawyer vines that clutch and hang on. Finally she stops at the edge of rushing Mangahouanga Stream–“damn cold to arctic,” she calls it–and tentatively dips in a sneaker-shod foot. “You have to be very strong or totally insane to keep coming back here for 27 years.”

Wiffen keeps coming back because the place is full of fossils. She fell in love with them three decades ago and has been hunting them here ever since. Leaning on the walking stick, she splashes upstream a few hundred yards to a dark gray sandstone boulder the size of a television set. It is neatly split in half. Visible on its flat face, like pictures on a screen, are blackened fossilized bones. “Plesiosaur–vertebrae and pelvic girdle,” she says, running her fingers over all that’s left of the rump of a small-headed, long-necked reptile that paddled the seas of the southern hemisphere more than 80 million years ago, when most of the landmass that is now New Zealand was underwater.

Professional paleontologists call this amateur “the dragon lady” for her work excavating the fossils of four previously unknown sea monsters, including a voracious lizardlike mosasaur bigger than a killer whale and as fierce as Tyrannosaurus rex. But Wiffen’s contribution to the understanding of prehistory goes well beyond unearthing frightening predators. She was the first person to find dinosaur fossils in New Zealand. Before she began whacking rocks with a hammer, paleontologists were quite certain that New Zealand, a nation slightly smaller than Colorado, was one of the least likely places for dinosaurs to have lived–for two reasons: First, the islands were too small and too isolated to have supported hungry reptilian giants, and second, a turbulent geological history–in which the land sank and emerged from beneath the waves many times–made dinosaur survival unlikely.

“She put dinosaurs in a land previously devoid of them and changed our idea of how large a landmass had to be to support them,” says paleontologist Gorden Bell of the U.S. National Park Service. “All that was completely new.” Indeed, Wiffen’s discoveries, which earned her the title “Commander of the British Empire” from Queen Elizabeth, reveal that dinosaurs in New Zealand survived not only in a surprisingly small place but also in a temperate climate much like that of today. Her iconoclastic ways have served to remind paleontologists how little they still know about the ancient world fossils represent: Why were so many dinosaurs so big? How did some of these behemoths end up on a remote island? And if they could thrive on a small, unstable landmass in the kind of climate that now supports humans, why aren’t there more monstrous-sized creatures in today’s world?

What makes Wiffen’s work more remarkable is that she never attended a university or got a single research grant. “I’ve been turned down by experts,” she says. “An old lady without a degree to her name isn’t a good bet for grants.” It’s her money she has been spending all these years in the pursuit of good science. But despite a lack of formal credentials or funding, Wiffen has published 14 scientific papers on subjects ranging from bone histology to fossil fishes and is working on more, including one with Gorden Bell about yet another new species of marine reptile. She’s a bit more cautious in how she approaches her work since the death of her husband, Pont, in 1992, and her heart bypass operation in 1996, but it’s clear, as she scrambles from boulder to boulder in Mangahouanga Stream, that nothing has really slowed her down. “I’m not the rocking-chair type,” she says absently, hefting and squinting at a 10-pound rock.

“I WAS TOO IGNORANT TO KNOW THAT DINOSAURS OFFICIALLY never existed in New Zealand,” Wiffen says slyly, relaxing over a cup of tea and plate of crackers and cheese at her beachfront cottage in Hawke’s Bay. Wearing a warm sweater, her gray hair sensibly short, she may look grandmotherly, but her green eyes are sharp, her tone confident and sometimes irreverent. With the agility of a 30-year-old she jumps onto a chenille-covered bed to drag down a heavy carton of papers from a high shelf. “One thing about being an amateur,” she says. “Professionals, their vision tends to be narrow–they don’t look for the unexpected.”

Wiffen works the opposite way: She always expects the unexpected. But she never thought she’d become famous. She grew up on farms in a conventional family and expected to become a housewife. She did. Her late husband, an electronics technician, worked at radio stations. They lived in the country, and Joan cooked, cleaned, washed, gardened, canned vegetables, grew greenhouse asparagus for sale, looked after the sheep, the goats, and the two children, Christopher and Judith. “I only heard about dinosaurs when I started buying books for my own kids,” she says.

The family hobby was rock collecting. The Wiffens belonged to rock and mineral clubs, attended night classes in geology, and for seven months in the late 1960s drove all over Australia collecting opals, topazes, sapphires, and garnets, carefully polishing their finds and turning them into jewelry. “We made key chains and necklaces until they came out our ears,” she says in her Kiwi accent, in which necklace comes out nickliss. The stones were beautiful, but dead. Then one day she bought a trilobite fossil at a roadside shop for 50 cents. Something about the fact that this weird-looking creature had been alive millions of years before resonated in her: “I was hooked,” she says.

She wanted to know what these creatures were, where they lived, how they came to be, and what their lives were like. With her family in tow, she tramped all over New Zealand, collecting fossil shells from Motunau, ammonites from Kawhia, belemnites from Port Waikato. And she read. There were no universities or natural-history museums in Hawke’s Bay, so she haunted libraries and mail-ordered textbooks and articles from journals. She read everything from basic encyclopedias to specialized texts like Alfred Sherwood Romer’s Osteology of Reptiles and Dale Russell’s Systematics and Morphology of American Mosasaurs. “The cretaceous reptiles just caught her attention,” says Gorden Bell. “She knew there wasn’t a lot of information, and she may have realized the contribution she could make.”

Slowly, Wiffen became convinced dinosaurs could have lived in New Zealand. There was fossil evidence of forests existing during the Jurassic period–190 million to 135 million years ago–and a record of marine reptiles extending nearly that far back. Snakes and marsupials hadn’t evolved at the time New Zealand split off from Gondwana–the southern supercontinent that about 85 million years ago divided into South America, Africa, and Australia–so those species aren’t native to the two islands. But dinosaurs had existed for some 150 million years at the time of the split, so why hadn’t their remains been found in New Zealand? The conventional wisdom was that dinosaurs never migrated to Wiffen’s part of Gondwana before the split, or that the climate had turned too cold for them to survive. Wiffen didn’t buy it. “I didn’t know a huge amount–nobody did at that time in New Zealand–but I couldn’t see any reason why they couldn’t be there.” So she decided to keep looking.

The search was expensive, so the Wiffens began seeking fossil sites close to the beachside cottage they’d bought in Hawke’s Bay. Her big break came in 1972, when she found an old geological map, its paper limp from years of refolding, in the back of a village toy shop. The map was based on oil exploring, and in a legend down one side, she read: “Reptilian bones in beds of brackish water in the Te Hoe Valley.” Immediately, Wiffen saw visions of ancient sea monsters–and dinosaurs. Six months later she found the site, a remote stream 70 miles inland and 1,500 feet above sea level. The area had been an estuary in the Late Cretaceous period. Now fossils were literally bursting out of the rocks: fish teeth, fish scales and vertebrae, shark teeth, shells, and turtle parts. But no dinosaurs.

Fossils aren’t easy to find in New Zealand. In prehistoric times, the landmass drifted across the ocean floor on tectonic plates, heaving and twisting with volcanic activity, alternately freezing and warming, sinking into the sea, and rising from it. The fossils that survived were mostly scattered or destroyed. On top of that, millennia of heavy rains and acidic forest soil quickly destroyed whatever animal remains might have become fossilized.

But long ago a handful of bones washed into a river and were carried to the coast, where they settled into the estuary bottom. Over centuries, calcium carbonate coated and fossilized each bone. The water receded, the land rose, and the petrified bones, encased in stones as small as tangerines or as large as Toyotas, rolled into Mangahouanga Stream. About one in 50 stones there contains a fossil, Wiffen estimates, and, sometimes, because the rock erodes faster than the bone, a fossil protrudes like a crude invitation. “But it’s bits and scraps,” she says, “and scattered, not in strata like you see laid out in all the best books.”

Wiffen’s whole family became involved in her fossil search and were joined by a widening circle of friends–a train driver, a junkyard worker, a lawn mower repairman–recruited as much for brawn as dedication. Wiffen let them feel important, and they were, but she was the one who learned the names of the bones, understood how a marine reptile’s limbs differed from those of a land reptile, and studied how to get fossils out of rocks. Her gang prospected up and down Mangahouanga Stream, dragging rocks from the icy water, working like convicts to split them with hammer and chisel or a gas-powered masonry saw. Once, Wiffen carried out two fossil-bearing stones in her backpack and then, curious, weighed them at home: 85 pounds. She weighs little more than 100. “Now I carry a hammer, and I like nice little rocks,” she says.

Sometimes the crew blew apart the bigger rocks with dynamite, a practice Wiffen now regards as excessive. But one such explosion in 1974 produced a major discovery–her first mosasaur specimen. The fossil-hunters had spotted bones on a boulder’s surface and blown it up, sending stones and bones everywhere. They hauled their spoils out with ropes and took them home. Wiffen numbered the pieces and set them aside. Four years later she started the process of extracting the bones from the sandstone surrounding them. Separating petrified bone from stone–without destroying the fossil–is tedious labor. For two years, Wiffen toiled in her garage workshop, sawing at sandstone to reveal more bone, soaking the bone in an acid bath to eat away more rock, and then coating the exposed bone with protective resin. Then she repeated the process until the bone was fully revealed. Sometimes, after weeks of work, a fine specimen would disintegrate before her eyes in acid.

In 1980, her long labor was rewarded with the skeleton of what turned out to be a new genus and species of mosasaur, a massive carnivorous marine reptile that grew to be as long as 45 feet. The creatures had powerful sinuous bodies, broad, webbed paddles for limbs, and long, conical, tooth-filled heads like those of alligators. Wiffen says it was “the most rapacious predator in our seas.”

Had she found nothing more than this single creature, her place in history would be secure, says Bell. But the new genus represents a specific, separate, unknown lineage of mosasaur and sheds light on the development of marine reptiles in general. Before long Wiffen had discovered three more. “She has contributed at least four new species,” Bell says.

But she wasn’t just digging up sea creatures. Without knowing it, she had also found dinosaurs. One day in 1975, Pont found a piece of petrified wood sticking out of a football-sized concretion. He broke the rock open with his hammer, saw nothing interesting, and turned it over to his wife. When she inspected it, fragments of a fossil caught her eye. “I thought it was a vertebra, but I didn’t know,” she says. “I just knew that it was different.”

Back at the workshop, Wiffen cleaned up the specimen and consulted her books but couldn’t find anything that looked quite like it. From the shapes of the ends of the bone, she thought it belonged to a land animal. She couldn’t identify it more precisely, and it joined her other unidentified fossils in a locked cabinet.

In 1979, she and Pont took a holiday in Brisbane and stopped at the Queensland Museum. There she met Ralph Molnar, an American paleontologist working as the senior curator of vertebrate fossils. She noticed some fossil bones on his desk that looked familiar. “I have a vertebra like that at home,” Wiffen said, remembering the one she’d found back in 1975. “What is it?”

A dinosaur bone, he said.

Back in Hawke’s Bay, Wiffen made casts and photos of her two-and-a-half-inch, time-blackened vertebra and sent them off to Molnar. He phoned two weeks later. “Joan, you’ve got yourself a dinosaur.”

“It was clearly a dinosaur vertebra,” Molnar says today. “And it was the first dinosaur found in New Zealand.”

It belonged to a theropod–a carnivorous, large-headed creature resembling a smaller, spryer T.rex. The bone proved Wiffen’s central point–that dinosaurs had roamed New Zealand. It also revealed that dinosaurs were more resilient and adaptable than previously believed. “Dinosaurs are big,” Bell says. “So a landmass has to be large enough and provide enough food to support a stable, viable, genetically diverse population–otherwise the animals start to get smaller,” much like the miniature deer subsisting on the scrub vegetation of the Florida Keys. “Most scientists thought that if there were dinosaurs on these relatively small islands, they should be diminutive ones. But what she found was full sized.”

Molnar wrote the paper and delivered it at Wellington’s Victoria University in 1980, mentioning, in passing, that the bone was “assiduously collected by Mr. and Mrs. Wiffen.” The discovery did not throw the scientific establishment into paroxysms of self-examination; if anything, it fell into a pool of silence. “When an elderly housewife does things, well, some–particularly men–find it hard to take,” Wiffen says, smiling thinly. “Some said, `Well, they must have washed over from Australia,'” she snorts.

Today nobody disputes her conclusions, which are included in numerous textbooks. “She put New Zealand on the map with respect to Mesozoic reptile discoveries,” says John Long, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Western Australian Museum in Perth and the author of Dinosaurs of Australia and New Zealand. The scant follow-up from other scientists is understandable because New Zealand is a long way from everywhere else, its dinosaur fossils are hard to dig out, and funding is limited. “If you’re interested, you have to come here from Europe or Asia or North America,” Molnar says. “And those places are just as interesting and require less funding.” Or, as Wiffen puts it, “It’s much more rewarding to find a whole great skull with big teeth–gives you something to show your sponsors. All we have is our bits and scraps.”

But the more Wiffen has learned, the more she sees how even the tiniest finds improve our understanding of an ancient world. And understanding–the ability to picture clearly in her mind what that long-vanished world was truly like–has kept her going for decades. “She made these contributions when faced by a lot of doubters–it’s a testament to her will and perseverance,” says Bell. “It’s hard to stand in the face of accepted science and wave a red flag.” He pauses and adds: “Sometimes professionals fear being perceived as odd when they try to demonstrate something against the normal party line. That never bothered Joan.”

Wiffen is surprised that people marvel at her dedication. “They say, `All those big gray rocks, look at your hands and your shins all scratched,'” she says. “But it’s so exciting! You find a stone and break it open and recognize a bone that hasn’t been touched for 70 million years. And that was alive! Munching on a tree right there!” She turns away, picks up another stone, turns it this way and that in the sun, and taps it with her hammer.

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