Sunday, 15 January 2017

Devoted to dinosaurs: Joan Wiffen and the role of the amateur scientist

I was recently at a second hand book stall, browsing a first edition of Graeme Steven's Prehistoric New Zealand. The market stall owner told me that she had thumbed through the book and was amazed to learn that New Zealand had any wildlife prior to the moa. This seemingly widespread lack of knowledge about the nation's past is no doubt partially due to the small number of both practitioners and finds, although the state education system cannot be considered blameless. Still, in an age of easily-accessible information via the World Wide Web and the likes of the National Geographic Channel, such gaps do seem rather surprising.

Of course a lack of public knowledge concerning ancient life isn't restricted to New Zealand. I recall several amusing (yes, I know it sounds smug) encounters at London's Natural History Museum, where I discovered that parents of dinosaur-crazed children cannot differentiate giant ground sloths from dinosaurs, let alone bipedal carnosaurs from quadrupedal sauropods.

The poor understanding of New Zealand's past is exacerbated by the low population and correspondingly small amount of funding available. Therefore perhaps it's not surprising that amateurs have made significant discoveries, from the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club's discovery of a giant penguin fossil at Kawhia to Joan Wiffen, the 'Hawke's Bay housewife' (an epithet that always causes me to grit my teeth) who discovered New Zealand's first dinosaur fossils and much more besides.

I've previously discussed the joys of amateur fossicking from a primarily fun aspect but also mentioned how New Zealand relies on non-professionals. The Kawhia penguin is a case in point, as it would have eroded within a year had it not been discovered. Indeed, I was recently collecting some Pleistocene marine molluscs above a Taranaki river valley, on a steep slope prone to severe flooding. These fossils had been uncovered following a landslide caused by a severe rainstorm in 2015 and would no doubt be washed away with the next one.

Fossil hunting in New Zealand

In addition to the lack of professionals, the discipline's funding within New Zealand has decreased over the past half century. The Marsden Fund is a key sponsor of science projects but less than 10% of proposals are successful. The obvious wider issue here is that for the foreseeable future there is unlikely to be any private funding for scientific research that isn't financially viable in the short-term; let's face it, most paleontology isn't going to earn big bucks. That isn't to say there aren't some income streams available, especially around museums, merchandise and occasionally site tourism. However, New Zealand's dinosaur, marine reptile and pterosaur remains are mostly isolated fragments, hardly likely to prove star attractions for even the most ardent dino enthusiast.

Which brings us back to Joan Wiffen. She went from a minimal secondary education (due to her father's prejudice) to an honorary science degree from Massey University - whilst still supporting the view that it is the duty of married women to do all the housework. Although she may not have actively negated the Hawke's Bay housewife appellation, the term is hardly suitable for an extremely conscientious scientist; after all, if her husband had been the team leader, he probably wouldn't have been referred to as a Hawke's Bay electronics technician!

Having recently finished reading Wiffen's 1991 book Valley of the Dragons: The Story of New Zealand's Dinosaur Woman I was struck by the obvious lack of professional expertise available in New Zealand as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. Even today, the thirty or so professional paleontologists in the country don't have their own organisation and fall under the auspices of the Geoscience Society of New Zealand. Yet I've long considered geology to be an extremely conservative discipline (think that meteorologist Alfred Wegener's continental drift hypothesis gained little traction for decades until evidence of plate tectonics was found, rather than there being any active interest in resolving the mystery) and so can do few favours to outsiders.

Therefore, Joan Wiffen faced almost complete indifference from scientists who proclaimed there were no relevant strata in which to locate dinosaur remains. Apparently someone had previously noticed reptilian bones in a Te Hoe Valley stream bed - which is what sparked off Wiffen's first expedition - but no-one had the interest or funding to follow it up. Her narrative hints at the disdain professionals felt for amateurs in general but happily this situation has changed markedly in the interim, with citizen science helping to bridge gaps in many fields. In the case of New Zealand paleontology, the notable finds by amateurs have included previously unknown species, adding to the evidence that areas of the 'lost' continent of Zealandia have been continually above water since the Mesozoic.

My recent Taranaki excursion was child's play compared to the deprivations Wiffen and co endured in their rat-infested self-built hut, not to mention funding the entire work themselves. From learning how to remove rock matrix via acetic acid (in an old baby bath, no less) to building a stereo microscope stand from a pillar drill base, the Hawke's Bay team certainly utilised classic kiwi number eight wire ingenuity.

In a pre-internet age - it took six months just to pin down the location and land owner of the area marked 'reptile bones' - gaining technical advice from foreign experts was slow and cumbersome. Ironically, in later years New Zealand professionals visited Wiffen's fossil preparation workshop to gain insight into their operation, including as to how she and her friends achieved such high standards. Clearly, her work wasn't the product of a casual dilettante but the output of a highly motivated and hard-working scientist, albeit an unpaid one.

The American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould frequently observed that his disciplines were forms of historical science, built upon a series of unrepeatable events created by the complex interaction of disparate factors. Therefore deposition and preservation - even the discovery - of fossils are unique circumstances; remains that are visible today may be little more than dust tomorrow. We owe Joan Wiffen and her colleagues an enormous debt for increasing the sum of human knowledge at their own time and expense, purely for the love of science. And if any Hawke's Bay residents want to pick up where she left off, then I'm sure both professionals and posterity would be most grateful!