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Joan Wiffen

Posted for Ralph Molnar. 

Joan  Wiffen passed away on 29 June. Joan was the primary figure in the 
discovery of  dinosaurs and other Mesozoic terrestrial vertebrates in New 
Zealand. Thirty some  years ago, in the 1970âs she and her husband, known to 
friends as Pont,  decided to hunt for vertebrate fossils in North Island. 
They tracked down a map  from a petroleum company that noted âreptilian bonesâ
 in the Te Hoe Valley. In  their â50âs, when most of us would be 
contemplating retirement, they took up  prospecting for reptilian fossils. At 
time, Cretaceous marine reptiles were  known from New Zealand, but no 
land-living creatures. By 1980, in addition to  fossils of marine reptiles, 
Joan and 
Pont had discovered a single bone of a  dinosaur, the first from New 
Zealand. Her later work was to reveal evidence of  probably five types of 
dinosaur, as well as of one flying reptile (pterosaur).  This is set out in her 
book âValley of the Dragonsâ.
Joanâs work is significant in several ways. First, but not least, in  
illuminating the evolutionary and geological history of the islands of New  
Zealand. Second, in shedding light on the elusive geological history of  
Antarctica, the âmother continentâ of New Zealand, from which New Zealand  
separated 80 million years ago, just before the time of the dinosaurs Joan  
discovered. Third, in showing what kinds of dinosaurs lived on islands since 
Zealand was already insular when these creatures lived. And, fourth, in also  
showing what kinds of dinosaurs lived near the poles, the Southern pole in 
this  case.. Most dinosaurs are known from countries, such as China, 
Mongolia,  Argentina, and the U.S. that were continental land masses at the 
dinosaurs  lived, and that were tropical or temperate in climate during that 
time. So  Joanâs discoveries help to illuminate the dark corners of the 
dinosaurian world,  and to provide insights into where these
creatures could and did  survive.
To me, however, Joanâs chief significance is not  in what she found, but 
what she did with her discoveries. Without formal  university training, Joan 
taught herself not only how to extract the fossils  from the recalcitrant 
rocks in which they were embedded, and which would tax  many formally trained 
technicians, but also to describe these remains  scientifically, and publish 
their descriptions in scientific journals.  Regardless of what kinds of 
expensive education, equipment or expeditions may be  necessary in certain 
circumstances, Joan showed that the interested, logical and  critical mind is 
single most important factor in success. She showed that a  person with 
these qualities can make important contributions to their chosen  field. She 
had scientific papers published not only in New Zealand, but also  Australia, 
the U.S. and Brazil and was awarded the Morris K. Skinner award by  the 
Society of Vertebrate Paleontology for her contributions to the
science.  She will be long remembered and much missed.  

Ralph Molnar
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