<MKIRKALDY <at> aol.com>
2009-07-01 22:54:46 GMT
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 1970’s she and her husband, known to his
friends as Pont, decided to hunt for vertebrate fossils in North Island.
They tracked down a map from a petroleum company that noted “reptilian bones”
in the Te Hoe Valley. In their ‘50’s, when most of us would be
contemplating retirement, they took up prospecting for reptilian fossils. At this
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 1991
book ‘Valley of the Dragons’.
Joan’s 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 ‘mother continent’ 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 New
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 time
dinosaurs lived, and that were tropical or temperate in climate during that
time. So Joan’s discoveries help to illuminate the dark corners of the
dinosaurian world, and to provide insights into where these
creatures could and did survive.