Twenty years ago, such a scenario in New Zealand would have been unthinkable. Now, thanks largely to the work of amateur palaeontologist Joan Wiffen and a handful of helpers, dinosaurs have begun to reclaim even this island vestige of Gondwana.
To date, all the evidence has come from one place: the Mangahouanga stream bed, deep in the Urewera Ranges—a lush site that in the depths of winter looks uncannily as though lifted from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.
Wiffen, 71 this year, and recently recovered from a knock-out dose of influenza, leans against a tree to catch her breath. Every step of the steep winding track has been worn into memory over the years that she, her late husband Pont and friends backpacked out more than 100 tonnes of fossil-bearing rock.
An aluminium ladder—one of the many scavenged pieces of equipment that help lubricate this shoestring enterprise—extends down the cliff face to the river bed. Hefting a rock-cutting saw, I follow Trevor Crabtree, a fellow enthusiast, down to what he calls “mosasaur beach.”
We ford the icy stream with the aid of guide wires and rope, and soon the hills resound with the throaty snarl of the converted chainsaw as Trevor attacks a split boulder. These mossy concretions, each a grey pearl of calcareous sandstone surrounding a nucleus of organic matter such as wood or bone, litter the stream bed like geological gift-wrap.
The technique of slabbing fossils for removal, perfected over many summers, involves cutting two rectangles around the exposed fossil—the inner one to prevent specimen damage—then springing the rock by rhythmic hammering along the outer blade cuts.
Hauled by car to rock-strewn back yards in Napier, 100 kilometres away over logging track and twisting highway, the bones are then liberated by further sawing, drilling and immersion in glacial acetic acid to eat away the encasing rock.
“Acid is a wonderful tool, but very expensive and destructive,” says Wiffen.
The acid attack must be interrupted periodically while newly exposed bone is coated in protective resin. Delicate final work is often done with an air scribe, a miniature jackhammer which blows dust away with a jet of compressed air.
Crabtree shows me the partly-freed skull of a primitive schnapperlike fish, which looks to be hewn by a modern Michelangelo from its resistant slab. It has taken a week of 12-hour days to get this far, he says, but the effort has been well worth it. The reward is an impressive skull and jaws, a splendid specimen of a large Late Cretaceous fish.
To get an idea of the effort needed, imagine this: a neighbour gets hold of the chicken bones from your last dinner—bones that for some reason you badly want—and heaves them into your newly poured concrete drive. It so happens that you can’t get to the drive for a few months. Then, when you do, you find it broken into beachball-sized pieces and jumbled every which way. Still want those bones?
Joan’s band of amateurs do. And their dogged perseverance has won them over recent years a gradually lengthening roll call of dinosaurs, beginning with the epoch-making 1975 discovery of what proved to be a tailbone from a four-metre-long, half-tonne carnivorous dinosaur. Then came astounding evidence of a nine-metre allosaur—effectively an economy version of Tyrannosaurus rex, though by human standards there was nothing economical about its formidable teeth and claws.
In 1988, an ankylosaur, a low-slung armoured beast the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, was identified, followed by a three- to four-metrelong, two-legged plant-eater: a hypsilophodont—the gazelle of the dinosaur world.
Comparison with modern animals is apt. Palaeontologists stress the usefulness of seeing dinosaurs as creatures of flesh and blood rather than of fevered nightmare. Alien though they may seem to us, dinosaurs went about their daily lives in ways that are strikingly similar to those of animals today.
The excitement caused by the more recent New Zealand dinosaur finds stemmed in part from the witness they give of a viable ancient ecosystem comprising both predators and prey. Prior to that, the country’s sole carnivorous dinosaur was thought to have eked out its life scavenging among shellfish and seaweed on the shore—a most unlikely existence for such a creature.
The discovery in the Te Hoe valley of plant remains, two insects (a cockroach and a leaf-eating beetle) and a freshwater turtle gave further detail to the emerging picture of life in Cretaceous New Zealand.
In 1986, Crabtree stumbled on an unusual bone while rummaging through the rock hoard in his yard. The delicate layered bone looked to be that of a bird. Painstaking cleaning and consultation with overseas authorities showed it to be something more astounding: the lower wing bone of a pterosaur, a flying reptile; one with a span of some four metres. Months later, Wiffen found additional proof that this pelican-like creature once flew in New Zealand skies when she uncovered part of the shoulder blade of a juvenile.
But be advised: pterosaurs are not dinosaurs. Neither are ichthyosaurs, those primitive reptiles resembling dolphins, nor elasmosaurs, the long-necked plesiosaurs associated by many with the Loch Ness monster. As a simple party conversation guide, if it flew, swam, had the splayed legs of a crocodile or did not live between 230 and 65 million years ago, it was not a dinosaur.
The discovery of dinosaurs in New Zealand was made more likely by the discovery of marine reptile fossils. As Joan Wiffen tells it, she was hunched with her family over a geological map one day in the early 1970s when they came across the words: “In the Te Hoe Valley the beds are partly brackish water, and contain reptilian remains . . . .” Though in small print among the gaudy pinks, mauves and yellows of the map, the gloss was for them a buzzing neon of enticement.
The note, it turned out, dated from an oil company survey in the 1950s which had not been followed up. The Wiffens found the spot, at the end of a little-used dirt road, and struck pay dirt: the stream bed rocks fairly bristled with fish scales, shark teeth, ancient squid-like creatures called belemnites and teeth from the first-known southern hemisphere sawfish.
The first fossil bones discovered by Joan and Pont were identified as plesiosaur vertebrae. Later, in 1978, a complete skull was exhumed. A New Zealand first, it is one of only a dozen complete elasmosaur skulls in the world.
Plesiosaurs have proved to be the most numerous inhabitants of the valley graveyard, with the remains of very young offspring as well as large 10-metre adults being found. Bones, including complete skulls, from another marine reptile, the mosasaur, have also been found at Mangahouanga, though in smaller numbers. Mosasaurs, which plundered the world’s oceans relentlessly for 35 million years, a mere fraction of the plesiosaur’s 120-million-year spree, succumbed to the worldwide extinctions that ended the reign of the dinosaurs on land 65 million years ago—now thought to have been caused by climate change following a massive meteor strike.
The existence of such marine remains 80 kilometres inland and at an altitude of 1000 metres is readily explained. The Mangahouanga reptiles lived in what palaeontologists and geologists call the Cretaceous Period, which, along with the Triassic and the Jurassic, make up the Mesozoic Era: the age of the dinosaurs.
At that time, the site lay on the coast of a very different New Zealand. A nearby river, loaded with silt and debris from the surrounding hills, fed into a protected estuary or lagoon, enriching the coastal waters. It must have been a salubrious location with plentiful food, because the plesiosaurs and mosasaurs bred there for an almost incomprehensible span of time. As these reptiles died, their bones sank into the mud of the lagoon to become entombed in coastal sediment.
Dinosaur remains were also borne by the river into the shallow waters of the bay, as sheep carcasses from Hawkes Bay farms sometimes are today. It is likely that the bodies would have been badly mauled and dismembered by scavengers both on land and in the water, defeating hope of ever assembling complete skeletons from the valley.
In this, the site differs from the world’s prime Cretaceous fossil grounds, many of which were once great inland seas—Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, for example, and Australia’s outback, the prairies of Montana and Wyoming and the badlands of Alberta. They were like vast dinner plates, gradually accumulating the debris of the ages.
By comparison, inland Hawkes Bay has a tortured geological history, having been raised and lowered, tilted, folded and torn over the past 80 million years to form today’s rugged terrain.
Today, the fossil-bearing rocks have been brought once more to the surface, where an ongoing process of natural violence, from earthquake and tropical storm to flash flood and erosion, reveals and often reclaims them.
In 1985, as a result of what one local geographer called the biggest regional upheaval in 20,000 years, the Mangahouanga rose nine metres, and kilometre-long tracts of forest were cleaved from its banks. Wiffen and her team lost promising fossils which were awaiting recovery, and for months access was closed while culverts were repaired.
But the landslips also brought fresh material to the stream bed. Indeed, the renewal process occurs every time a flood rips rocks from the geological anticline and scatters them among the river’s deep pools. There, 30-degree summer sunshine and stubborn winter frosts often crack the concretions to reveal strange new forms of life from the underworld.
It was in just such circumstances, after cyclone Bola in 1988, that one of the most spectacular finds, a New Zealand ankylosaur, was made. Ankylosaurs, “stiff lizards,” were the military tanks of the dinosaur world. With broad, blunt heads and short legs, they relied on bony armour set into leathery skin for defence. They compensated for weak teeth and stubby claws with powerful tails often ending in clubs, a blow from which would have been crippling.
Garages in the suburbs and a pair of huts at the Te Hoe roadhead are piled high with enigmatic fossils awaiting classification. Any one of them could provide clues to equally impressive animals. The huts themselves are outposts of civilisation 14 kilometres from the nearest telephone and reticulated power, and perhaps 45 kilometres from the nearest sealed public road. A sign on one reads “Hawkes Bay Palaeontology Group.” A few metres away stands what is possibly the country’s most remote flushing toilet.
Crabtree confesses to sometimes making the gruelling journey from Napier just to savour the tranquillity. And, to ponder better ways of parting stone from bone in the valley below.
In the early 1970s, explosives were used to break up large, unwieldy boulders, but potential damage to vulnerable fossils, and the advent of rock saws, prompted a change.
Even tungsten-tipped electric drills, acid baths and air scribes blunt enthusiasm in time, however. Now Crabtree is toying with the idea of using sonic vibrations. The technique is used in hospitals to break down gallstones, he says. And being made of calcite, gallstones are not unlike the calcareous concretions that litter the stream. He has his eyes on a Scandinavian device which could, with modification, bring a new refinement to palaeontology—an otherwise low-tech discipline. As one wag noted, the most revolutionary advance in fossil hunting of recent years has been the advent of the self-sealing plastic bag.
It may come as a surprise to those raised on images such as that of the towering Diplodocus in London’s Museum of Natural History—to those of us “haunted with the heads colossal in death,” as British poet Peter Redgrove has it—that New Zealand’s dinosaur catalogue is being assembled from scraps: a broken toe bone or pelvic fragment here, a wingbone the size of a teaspoon there. Yet that is all we antipodeans are likely to get. No complete skeletons and, unfortunately, little likelihood of identifying the genus, or in some cases even the family.
In this, however, New Zealanders are less alone than they might imagine. Few articulated museum showpieces anywhere have been retrieved whole, most being composites of several animals. Despite its resonant place in the popular imagination, for example, only four complete skulls of Tyrannosaurus rex have been unearthed.
For many newly discovered species, the anatomy is pieced together only after much trial and error. A reconstruction in 1853 of the first dinosaur found, Iguanodon, pictured something like a mythical griffin, minus the wings. It was fitted out with a curious blunt nose horn, now known to be one of its thumb spikes. A 1940 Iguanodon model located the thumb spikes correctly, but had the beast take what is today thought to be an uncharacteristically kangaroo-like posture.
Even the printed guide to New Zealand’s first exhibition of dinosaurs, held at the Auckland Museum in 1987, misrepresented the long-dead. Its cover carried a photograph of a distinctively crested hadrosaur from China called Tsintaosaurus. The unicorn-like appendage was thought to be unique among dinosaurs until palaeontologists realised the horn consisted of a nasal bone that in life lay flat along the snout.
Staff experienced the difficulties of postulating probable forms when Canterbury Museum purchased the country’s only complete dinosaur skeleton, a four-metre-high replica of an Allosaurus found in Utah. On opening the consignment’s two wooden crates, curator Margaret Bradshaw found a bewildering collection of bones with neither labels nor plans for assembly. Finally, she resorted to the technique used by palaeontologists the world over: clear a space on the floor, lay out the bones, then connect the leg bone to the thigh bone . . . .
Of course, the entire enterprise would be impossible without the ability to draw on comparative material held overseas. From the beginning, Wiffen and her co-workers have relied on palaeontologists in Australia and elsewhere. Even so, some fossil fragments have only a frustratingly fugitive identity. The New Zealand pterosaur, for example, is not known at family, genus or species level. That is akin to being able to identify a domestic cat only as a member of the order Carnivora.
Added to the frustrations of dealing with mere slivers of bone are the delays in the identification process itself. For the best results, casts must be made of the fragile and irreplaceable bones for mailing to overseas experts. Casting is itself a difficult art to master, as even a brief glance around Wiffen’s workbench and reject box testifies. Then there is the inevitable nailbiting before a verdict is reached.
To help identify the hypsilophodont, Wiffen tried to get the toe bone cast of an Argentinian specimen. The process took 18 months, and when the cast arrived she found there were few similarities. A problem facing researchers worldwide, she says, is the difficulty of matching the same type of dinosaur from the same period.
Nevertheless, the astonishing speed with which dinosaur knowledge is accumulating worldwide encourages Wiffen to believe many gaps in the jigsaw of the Late Cretaceous will one day be filled.
More than half of the 350 known dinosaur types have been discovered within the past decade, with a new one being described on average every seven weeks. These include the discovery, in the foothills of the Andes, of Euraptor, the oldest dinosaur ever found, and believed to have lived 225 million years ago.
Wiffen hopes more bones from New Zealand’s ankylosaur, of which little is known, will one day be discovered, enabling a link to be made with other Southern Hemisphere ankylosaurs. It is possible. Palaeontologists estimate that less than one per cent of the dinosaur species that walked the earth have so far been identified. Yet the picture of life on what was once the great supercontinent of Gondwana has already resolved surprisingly in recent years. Ankylosaur fossils have been retrieved from Late Cretaceous sediments on James Ross Island in Antarctica, and a small plant-eater similar to Hypsilophodon has been found in the region. Indeed, Antarctica and New Zealand are among the last places on earth to yield dinosaurs.
Wiffen takes the ankylosaur finds in Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand as evidence for a southern land route by which the armoured dinosaurs, and the meat-eaters which preyed on them, spread across Gondwana before the component landmasses separated 80 million years ago.
When dinosaurs were discovered in New Zealand, they were assumed to have arrived from Australia because, it was argued, the path by which the southern beech forests had spread (via Antarctica) would have been too cold for the lumbering cold-blooded leviathans.
A more respectful view of dinosaurs, taking account of the discovery of vast trackways which prove that migration took them to cold climates, suggests many species may have been warm-blooded and able to endure the southern route.
For much of the Mesozoic, Queensland Museum’s Ralph Molnar pictures a polar environment throughout what is now Australasia, supporting specialised dinosaurs able to endure the bleak, five-month Antarctic night. He puts Hawkes Bay on a list of polar sites that include Alaska, Spitzbergen and Victoria’s Dinosaur Cove.
The presence of dinosaurs for 15 million years in post-separation New Zealand, prior to the great extinction 65 million years ago, prompts tantalising questions. Did these animals remain in a state of “suspended evolution” in the isolated haven in which they found themselves? Or did they evolve in unique ways, as did much of the country’s later bird life?
And speaking of bird life, says Wiffen, where did the moa fit in? Did their evolution from protobirds—relatives of the great carnosaurs—happen in Gondwana? Or did it occur elsewhere, and the moa, along with other ratites, move into Gondwana later?
“From the end of the Cretaceous to recent times is one big hole in our knowledge. Although there are a few bird fossils as old as the Paleocene—penguins, especially—the first mammals, whales, make their appearance in the record 20-30 million years ago. There are no moa records beyond two million years ago.”
It is difficult for us, living in a world where mammals rule the global roost, to imagine what the age of dinosaurs was like. Yet, as University of Auckland associate professor of geology Jack Grant-Mackie comments: “For close to 200 million years there was nothing on land bigger than a turkey that was not a dinosaur.”
Slowly, outdated notions of dinosaurs as tail-dragging, walnut-brained heavyweights are being replaced by a picture of a diverse and highly adaptable group of animals. Recent research indicates that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded while others, such as Tyrannosaurus, may have had different metabolisms at different stages of their life cycle. It has been suggested that one tree-browsing giant, Barosaurus, may have had as many as eight separate hearts to get blood to its head—a lofty 12 metres above the ground.
Contrary to popular belief, many dinosaurs nurtured their offspring and protected them in the manner of today’s herding animals. Nests made by hypsilophodonts have been found in Montana, for example, suggesting they bred in vast rookeries as do today’s seabirds, and that the young remained in the area after hatching.
And, if palaeontologists like American Jack Homer are to be believed, life in the Mesozoic was far from being a theatre of blood. The fearsome horns of many herbivores like Triceratops, he argues, were used mainly for establishing dominance within herds and for attracting a mate, rather than for fighting pitched battles. And—heresyTyrannosaurus rex was primarily a scavenger. When it did take on live prey, it picked sick stragglers rather than healthy adults.
Furthermore, dinosaurs were just getting into their stride when disaster overtook them Admittedly, some lines, such as the towering five-storey-high Brachiosaurus, had been replaced early on, but throughout the Cretaceous there lived an enormous number of dinosaurs, from extravagantly crested pachycephalosaurs to lethal pack-hunting velociraptors. Elegant creatures, they were equipped with brain-tobody ratios greater than present-day reptiles, and had sophisticated physiologies and behaviours.
Grant-Mackie believes it is only a matter of time before new dinosaur grounds are discovered in New Zealand. And, because New Zealand has few suitable deposits of land origin, those finds will probably be made in marine sediments.
Besides, the country’s largest land deposits are coal-bearing sequences which, due to their acidic nature, seldom preserve bones. On the other hand, New Zealand has Mesozoic marine rock totalling perhaps 25 kilometres in thickness which may conceal entirely new species, he says.
The country is certainly not without ancient sites. We already have our own Jurassic Park in Southland’s Curio Bay—a fossilised forest 170 million years old. No dinosaur remains have yet been found there, though it is probable they trod its wooded corridors back in the time when it was still part of Gondwana.
Other possible sites include North Canterbury’s Waipara Gorge, a location that has yielded marine reptiles, shellfish and wood and leaf fossils.
“The prime reason dinosaurs were found in Te Hoe is that people invested time in the search,” says Grant-Mackie. “The ones who find them are the ones who turn over the most rocks.”
Despite his interest as a palaeontologist in New Zealand’s dinosaur past, Grant-Mackie admits that the field is likely to be left to amateurs for the foreseeable future. It is, he says, a criticism of the funding of science in New Zealand that neither past so long in its unfolding that constellations had changed shape in the heavens and the earth’s continents had drawn together and parted in a stately square-dance of plate tectonics. A past ample enough for nature to throw any old possibility together and see what happened—gigantism, baroque armour, the gift of flight.
Through the work of the early scientists and popularisers, dinosaurs got a grip on the human imagination that they have never relinquished.
In 1914, for example, the cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur was filmed. Then came other monster pictures, with increasingly realistic animal protagonists, culminating in Steven Spielberg’s big-budget thriller Jurassic Park. Based on a bestselling novel, it is set to become the biggest-grossing production in cinema history.
The success of Jurassic Park could have been predicted in Owen’s day. After all, his 30-tonne ferro-cement dinosaur replicas were set on an artificial island in Exhibition Park as one of the commercial operation’s main attractions. The circumstance, dinosaurs as theme park draw-cards, is not unlike that of Spielberg’s film.
The paying public, it seems, is hungry for whatever it can get in the way of “Godzillas with fangs.” Now the offerings have broadened to include everything from dinosaur T-shirts and lunchboxes to bubblegum, postage stamps and slippers that roar like T-rex when you walk.
Inevitably, in this era of the microchip, a CD-ROM computer disc is available with dinosaur articles, photographs, sound effects and a blood-curdling video sequence called “The Hunt.”
There are also any number of robotic dinosaur displays, roaring at children and winking menacingly at adults in big cities the world over.
Oddly, and in an echo of Owen’s 1853 publicity feast, the biggest maker of robotic dinosaurs started down that road after lending a Triceratops as a backdrop to a patron’s banquet at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Lending “live” dinosaurs to museums proved a hit for the company, with attendance for client institutions jumping by up to 15 times the rate for normal exhibits.
Even dinosaur droppings are likely to excite public attention these days, with a collection of 23 lumps of fossilised excrement selling at auction in London university nor government scientists are able to undertake such activities. The lack of a direct commercial spin-off is a major factor. It has been estimated that for salaried scientists to shoulder the work of Wiffen’s group would cost up to $1 million a year.
The problem is not confined to this country. Surprisingly, a mere 50 or so professionals worldwide are hunting dinosaurs full-time—fewer people than worked on Jurassic Park, the film based on their findings. And the palaeontologists’ combined annual budget, at less than $2 million, is minute by comparison.
The New Zealand amateurs plugging away with their worn air scribes are even less well resourced. The Mangahouanga group is almost entirely self-funded. Grants totalling around $600 over 20 years, along with the occasional small donation, have been put towards the purchase of hard-to-get reference books and equipment for everyday toil at the fossil face. Travel to scientific meetings—essential for keeping up with the latest palaeontological thought—”is determined by the state of my piggy bank,” says Wiffen ruefully.
All the important finds have been deposited with the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, Lower Hutt, for permanent curation in a national fossil collection. But recognition of the discoveries has been slow. Wiffen’s first dinosaur find was officially announced by Ralph Molnar at the fifth Gondwana Symposium in Wellington, in 1980.
“The reaction was a thunderous silence and a general lack of interest or understanding of the geological significance of dinosaurs in New Zealand,” Wiffen recalled in her 1991 book Valley of the Dragons.
Now, as an increasing number of exhibitions including animated reconstructions tour the country, and as more people are exposed to film and television entertainment based, however inaccurately, on dinosaur life, interest is being aroused in the indigenous species.
The Auckland Museum, for example, is planning an exhibition called Volcanoes and Giants for the middle of 1994 to tell “the big stories,” in the words of curator of vertebrates Brian Gill. With information on New Zealand dinosaurs, moa and Late Cretaceous marine reptiles, it will eventually be housed as a permanent display.
But the classified orthodoxy of museum galleries reveals little about the serendipity needed to haul evidence from the unyielding rock. Mangahouanga, the country’s only known dinosaur burial site, does not give up its treasure readily. Twenty years of hard labour have resulted in fewer than a dozen identified dinosaur fossils.
The rugged Hawkes Bay hill country, once a hideout of the Maori warrior and prophet Te Kooti, and now the preserve of hardy hunters and trampers, has flung an almost impenetrable cloak around its past. Yet, perhaps intimations of that past have been leaking from the rocks for longer than we acknowledge.
Within bellowing distance of the dinosaur valley is a place called Maungataniwha—”mountain of the dragons.” The area round about, for all its remoteness, has a history of Maori settlement. Visible from the palaeontologists’ huts are the forested hills where once Maori had their gardens and pigeon troughs.
Could the early peoples of Aotearoa have seen the fossils and recognised them for what they were—evidence of awesome otherworldly creatures? The importance of dragons in Chinese culture, after all, has been influenced by that country’s dinosaur fossils, some of which are even now used in “dragon” potions.
In Maori mythology, taniwha were creatures with astounding powers, able to travel through earth and water. Come to think of it, that is just what Wiffen’s stonelike menagerie has done, lying down in soft coastal mud, only to rise again amid the violence of electrical storm and flash flood.
Crabtree, a possum hunter and deerstalker from way back, covered a lot of territory in his gun-carrying days. He and other members of the Hawkes Bay group have humped out vertebrate fossils from sites that read like palaeontological battle honours: Waiau River, Camp, Looney and Half-hour Creeks, Te Hoe valley.
“Over the years, we’ve extended the fossil area from four kilometres of stream bed to 20 kilometres square,” he says as we stop on our journey out of Mangahouanga to survey the sharply folded land.
“We have also had reports from goat cullers and deerstalkers about fossils seen in the rugged outback gullies. One bloke grabbed a rock and cut his hand open on a row of teeth,” says Crabtree cryptically. He nods at the distant rain-shrouded hills. “The teeth are still out there, somewhere.”
As evening begins to fall, we head for the sealed road with its active ribbon of lights. Behind us, in the brooding hills, unnumbered taniwha sleep on. One day, their time will come.