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Celebrating the Great Fossil Hunters

Celebrating the Great Fossil Hunters

New Zealand's fossil elite will gather for breakfast in Wellington on Monday, to celebrate the events that brought the world's first recognised dinosaur fossil to New Zealand more than a century ago. The Iguanodon Tooth, described by Sussex country doctor Gideon Mantell in the 1820s, was the first fossil from a dinosaur - or "terrible lizard" - to be recognised as such. Unfortunately for Mantell, who was perceived as an amateur, the scientific establishment of the time had trouble accepting how different the tooth's owner - an apparently herbivorous creature - was from any known animal.

"The Iguanodon Tooth precipitated a huge and dramatic development in human understanding - the concept of extinction. It really is the 'holy grail' of evolutionary biology and by a fluke of history, we have it here in New Zealand. This fossil is of immense value and is regarded as one of New Zealand's most significant treasures," said Dr Hamish Campbell, paleontologist and geologist at the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd (GNS) and Te Papa.

Mantell eventually gained the recognition he deserved, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and receiving its highest medal. After Mantell died his fossils were passed on to his son Walter, who had moved to New Zealand in 1839. The Iguanodon Tooth became Te Papa exhibit MNZ GH 004839. The Tooth, and Mantell's portrait and fantastic dinosaur drawings, are now on display in a National Library exhibition*.

Joan Wiffen, who found New Zealand's first dinosaur fossil, will be guest of honour at the breakfast. In the early 1970s Dr Wiffen, an amateur paleontologist, began discovering fragmentary fossils of dinosaurs up the Mangahouanga Stream in the Hawke's Bay. "The Lost Dinosaurs of New Zealand", a television documentary on Joan Wiffen's discoveries that screened on TV One last year, is currently a finalist in the Banff TV awards. Dr Wiffen is also in town as a special guest for a Tuesday night lecture* by New Zealand scientist Alan Cooper, and to launch a Royal Society publication for students about Alan's life and science. Professor Cooper, Director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre at the University of Oxford, is a world authority in the field of ancient DNA. Professor Cooper is the first person to have decoded the DNA of two species of moa; he determined that they may have evolved away from other birds around 82 million years ago. Interestingly, some of the first moa fossils to reach Britain came from Walter Mantell who, after failing to find a live moa, sent his father a magnificent collection of fossils. Gideon Mantell's great great grandson, well-known Wellington sports retailer Colin Tisdall, will bring Mantell's Royal Medal to the breakfast


"The real Jurassic Park: Ancient DNA in New Zealand", a public Lecture by Alan Cooper, The lecture will be in Maclaurin Lecture Theatre 103, Victoria University of Wellington, at 6.15 p.m. on Tuesday 15 April. Tickets for the lecture are limited and available free of charge, from: Victoria University Reception, Hunter Building Atrium, Gate 2, Kelburn Parade, 04 463 5283, or Royal Society of New Zealand, 4 Halswell St, Thorndon, 04 472 7421, or by email from If it's too late to send tickets, we will take book seats by email or over the phone. (The new Royal Society Alpha publication on Alan Cooper, with educational material suitable for schools, will be on sale for $5 at Alan Cooper's talk. The Alpha can also be bought by contacting the Royal Society,

The Big Picture, a National Library Gallery exhibition, is now open to the public. It includes a portrait of Gideon Mantell, the famous Iguanondon Tooth, a comic sketch of Mantell with fantastic dinosaurs and a watercolour, "Reptiles Restored", showing the world populated with dinosaurs.

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