Wiffen, Joan | Valley of the Dragons

  • ON RESERVE

    First edition, first impression of the autobiography of Joan Wiffen (1922-2009), the self-taught palaeontologist who made the first discovery of dinosaur fossils in Aotearoa New Zealand.

    Wiffen was born into a farming family and regretfully ended her education at age twelve because she could not afford boarding school, but during the Second World War she excelled in the Women’s Auxillary Air Force and was trained as a radar plotter. In 1953 she married her husband, Pont, and together they worked a smallholding and also developed a serious interest in geology, with Joan becoming particularly interested in fossils.

    “Joan soon convinced Pont to focus on fossils instead of gemstones, and the family visited many fossil localities around New Zealand during family holidays and outings. Joan found a reference in a geological map to rocks that contained ‘reptilian remains’ in a remote part of inland Hawke’s Bay. It took six months to get information on the locality and then to get permission from the landowner to visit. On Saturday 2 December 1972 the Wiffens made their first visit to Mangahouanga Stream, which flowed through steep, forest-covered hills. Joan recalled her excitement at their first view of the rocks: ‘Every one of the cold grey stones in the water seemed to sprout fossils … There were rocks encrusted with fish teeth, shark teeth, fish scales and vertebrae, gleaming on the surface’. Joan was then aged 50, and fossils from this stream were to be the focus of her life for the next 35 years. Joan was astonished to find that no one had visited the locality since it was noted during an oil exploration survey in the 1950s, and the rich fossil fauna had never been described” (Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand).

    Wiffen led her family and friends in the difficult task of excavating and transporting the fossils, and taught herself sophisticated techniques for extracting them from the rocks in which they were found. At the time, palaeontologists believed that no dinosaurs had lived in what is now New Zealand, and “Joan soon found that there was almost no one in New Zealand who could advise her on identification” so she “set out to teach herself from textbooks”. In 1979 she visited Dr. Ralph Monar in Brisbane, and recognised a fossil on his desk as identical to one she had excavated. “Molnar inspected their fossil and confirmed that it was the tailbone of a theropod, a medium-sized carnivorous dinosaur. At last the presence of dinosaurs in New Zealand had been confirmed.”

    The following year Wiffen’s discovery was presented at a conference in Wellington, and her first scientific paper was published, “describing a new mosasaur that she named Moanasaurus mangahouangae. As she acknowledged, she had considerable assistance from Geological Survey staff in understanding the conventions of illustrating and describing fossils, but she was a quick learner and thereafter was able to confidently prepare manuscripts for publication” (Te Ara). Wiffen continued to make discoveries and publish major papers through the early 2000s, publishing her last major paper, on her discovery of a titanosaur fossil, in 2007. She was a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, attending its conferences in 1983, 1996, and 2004, and received a number of awards, including an honoray doctorate from Massey University and a CBE in the 1995 New Year’s honours.

  • ...The Story of New Zealand's Dinosaur Woman. Glenfield, NZ: Random Century, 1991.

    Perfect bound. Original glossy, white wrappers, titles to spine and wrappers in black, the upper wrapper printed with a colour photo of Wiffen. Drawings and illustrations from photos throughout the text. A small area of tape residue to the upper wrapper, very light rubbing to the corners and a minor bump to the tail of the spine, small spot in the margin of page six. An excellent, fresh copy.