Monday, July 5, 2010

Populating Islands with Dinosaurs ~ Thoughts of Joan Wiffen

Joan showed that the interested, logical and critical mind is the single most important factor in success.
~ Comment by vertebrate paleontologist Ralph E. Molnar about Joan Wiffen 
This is the time of the year when my center of activity mostly moves north to a small community on the east end of Long Island, New York. No, not the southern fork at the end of the island whose claim to fame is the Hamptons and the setting of a vapid TV show. Rather, the other fork, the northern one without the fame and whose northern shore is on Long Island Sound. Here, amid farmland which is converting, seemingly overnight, into vineyards, stands my summer residence, a decrepit cottage, the ugly duckling in a collection of year-round and summer homes. Many trace their roots to a Methodist campground beginning in the late 1800s.

I’ve posted previously about the dilemma of a fossil lover spending time on Long Island which is the product of glacier action during the Pleistocene (which ended about 10,000 years ago). Though, on rare occasion, a fossil turns up in material that rode the glaciers from Connecticut, this is a fossil-barren island, scraped clean or buried by the glaciers. The geological history of Long Island precludes true fossil hunting. Even Joan Wiffen couldn’t change this island’s history.

June 30th was the first year anniversary of the death at 87 of amateur paleontologist Joan Wiffen, truly an indomitable spirit worthy of celebration. Beginning in the 1970s, Wiffen, with no higher education degree (postsecondary education was considered by her father to be a waste of time for women), but with a brilliant and tenacious mind, and a passion for fossils, upended conventional scientific thinking about the possibility that dinosaurs had ever inhabited the islands of her New Zealand homeland.

Most scientists had summarily rejected the idea that New Zealand had been home to dinosaurs. Their rationales were several. New Zealand’s separation perhaps some 80 to 85 million years ago (mya) from Gondwana, that megacontinent comprised of today’s Antarctica, Africa, South America, India, and Australia, occurred before dinosaurs had spread far enough to reach the land that became New Zealand. Or the climate had turned too cold for these land animals. Further, it was assumed that, even if dinosaurs had reached New Zealand before it was untethered from Gondwana, the available dry land was too small an area to support a dinosaur population.

Then there was the fossil record. Though it showed that New Zealand had supported terrestrial plant life as far back as the Jurassic (~200 to 146 mya), there was no fossil evidence of ancient terrestrial animal life. Ergo, scientific orthodoxy held that there had been no dinosaurs here. A few lone scientific voices had tried unsuccessfully to counter the prevailing wisdom.

Wiffen, who lived on New Zealand’s North Island, raised a family with her husband Pont. It was a marriage of shared passions (mostly beginning with her, perhaps). When Pont became was too sick to continue attending a night course on geology, Joan took his place, sparking an interest in geology, gems, and fossils. After Pont recovered, the family went in pursuit of gems, relocating for several months to Australia in the effort. Then the acquisition of a trilobite and an ammonite shifted Wiffen’s focus. As she wrote in her autobiography Valley of the Dragons: The Story of New Zealand’s Dinosaur Woman (1991):

These were priceless treasures from the past – and, suddenly, I was hooked. I knew what I wanted – to collect fossils. The family expressed surprise, but Pont said, “If that’s what you want to do, get on with it.”

Wiffen and family traipsed across New Zealand to its known fossil sites. But she was unsatisfied. Wanting more and expecting more from fossiling, she began searching for new sites with dinosaurs on her mind. A geological map produced in the late 1950s for an oil survey became her treasure map. Finding the color on the map that marked the geological age in which she was interested – the Late Cretaceous (~ 65 mya), she was startled to read in the legend for that color:

Reptilian bones in beds of brackish water in the Te Hoe Valley.

As she recounted, “The words made my spine tingle, with their visions of dinosaurs and prehistoric monsters.” She was now on a mission, one she pursued relentlessly, eventually discovering who owned the land in question and securing permission to hunt along the Mangahouanga Stream. The 90 kilometer trip inland into this forested mountainous area became a regular part of the family’s weekends. The many trips to Mangahouanga can be explained by their first sight of the stream in December 1972:

So, it was out of the car and a hurried clamber down the steep bank, and there they were – fossils in profusion. Every one of the cold grey stones in the water seemed to sprout fossils . . . . True, there were no dinosaur skeletons lying around in the boulders or in the crumbling shale bank, where the bridge was bedded, or any bones at all for that matter, but all this was forgotten in the excitement at what we saw. There were rocks encrusted with fish teeth, shark teeth, fish scales and vertebrae, gleaming on the surface where the rock had been worn away in the swift-flowing water, leaving these harder, dark, shining remains etched out.

Perhaps it was the innocence of the neophyte that led Wiffen in pursuit of dinosaur fossils in New Zealand. Didn’t she know the fossil record proved there weren’t any? Perhaps, she was actually knowledgeable enough to be suspicious of using the always incomplete fossil record to prove the negative.

Lest one think that the Wiffens and their friends had an easy time of it at Mangahouanga, the source of fossils after the early hunts was primarily calcareous sandstone concretions, those round or oblong boulders of varying size that were created when the rock material grew around pieces of organic material, fossilizing it in the process. Suggestive of how difficult the concretion were to split, the Wiffens early on resorted to explosives to break open some of them, often to the serious detriment of the interred fossils. More often the big concretions had to be cut with a rock saw into pieces that could be hauled out of the stream and to transportation.

As she admitted, she was naive in expecting to find dinosaur fossils at her site of Mangahouanga because, during the Late Cretaceous, it was an offshore marine location. Logically, land animal fossils are most likely to be found in areas that had been terrestrial at the time the animals lived, not in what were formerly marine environments where the chances of land animal remains washing into the water and being fossilized were so very limited. Over time, the Wiffens and their colleagues did find many marine fossils, including some from those impressive marine reptiles of the period – plesiosaurs and mosasaurs. But, no dinosaurs, though a few bones and vertebras from unknown animals had started to turn up beginning in 1974. A particularly distinct vertebra surfaced in 1975, one not clearly from a marine animal.

A trip in 1979 to Australia included a visit to the Queensland Museum in Brisbane where Wiffen encountered American paleontologist Ralph Molnar, a newly appointed curator. Seated in Molnar’s office, she spotted two fossil vertebrae on his desk. Amazed, she said she had found one like those and asked what they were. Molnar said they were from an ankylosaurus, a land dinosaur living near water. Though he later concluded Wiffen’s find was not from an ankylosaurus, but was in all likelihood from a theropod, a carnivorous dinosaur, it mattered not. Wiffen had begun to populate ancient New Zealand with dinosaurs.

A carnivorous dinosaur and no evidence of possible dinosaur prey in the food chain? More than a decade later, Wiffen found a fossil from a plant-eating dinosaur. Others followed. Now the fossil record proved that New Zealand was home to a panoply of dinosaurs.

The personal consequences for Wiffen of her success in finding fossils differed markedly from those experienced by another amateur paleontologist, Mary Anning, in early 19th century England (Anning was the subject of an earlier posting). Unlike Anning, whose contributions to paleontology were largely unrecognized or usurped by the male scientific establishment in her own time, Wiffen received full credit for her finds. In time, she authored or co-authored over a dozen scientific papers, received an honorary doctorate, was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE), and was awarded the Morris Skinner Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Joan Wiffen was a character, no question about it. Her autobiography is a delight, but the autobiographical sections are joyfully joined to a very matter-of-fact analysis of the geology and paleontology of New Zealand and a fascinating how-to guide to collecting and preparing fossils at her site.

The sharpness and rigor of her mind is evident throughout. She peppers the book with questions that emerge from her work, questions that only on occasion are answered by subsequent finds. Answers beget more questions. She read everything she could find, from textbooks to scientific papers. She opened communication to experts outside of New Zealand, after all no one else in New Zealand was studying dinosaur fossils on those islands. Wiffen was meticulous in curating her finds. There was nothing amateurish about the process she followed for extracting the fossils from the hard matrix and preserving them.

She was a wit, particularly when skewering society’s expectations concerning male and female roles, and not just in her autobiography. In an article in Discover (Jack McClintock, Romancing the Bone, June, 2000), she commented on the lack of response from the scientific community to the publication of the first paper on her New Zealand dinosaur find, “When an elderly housewife does things, well, some – particularly men – find it hard to take.”

There is no mistaking the sarcasm on the opening page of her autobiography when, after the old geological map was opened for the first time and the decision was made to go in pursuit of dinosaurs, the men left her house for a local road cut to look for fossils of forams, tiny marine creatures, “I, as all good housewives should, retired to the kitchen, cleared the table and washed the dishes.”

She was adept at blending sarcasm and wit on sexual roles. For example, in her autobiography, she discussed the tools used at the site, noting that she was not “allowed” to use the rock saw:

This expensive new toy was powered by a 2-stroke motor and was extremely temperamental. The men considered I had insufficient command of the type of language essential to operate it.


Good reading for fossil-less Long Island.

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