Renowned palaeontologist Joan Wiffen has died in Hawkes Bay.

The Havelock North 87-year-old, who was known as the Dinosaur Lady, passed away suddenly on Tuesday in Hastings Hospital.

Dr Wiffen's dig at Maungahouanga in Hawkes Bay was the first site found in New Zealand where dinosaurs were known to have lived.

She was the author and co-author of more than a dozen scientific papers and wrote of her achievements in her book Valley of the Dragons.

Born in 1922 and brought up in the King Country and Hawkes Bay, Dr Wiffen later recalled marvelling at the presence of sea shells high in the hills.

But she had only a brief secondary education - her father believed higher education was wasted on girls.

She served in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War II and worked for six years as a clerk before marrying Pont Wiffen in 1953.

The couple raised their two children at Haumoana near Hastings, and the family hobby was rock collecting - they gathered minerals and fossils throughout New Zealand and Australia.

Her husband enrolled in night classes in geology, and when he was ill, she went in his place and recalled being "green with envy" when someone found a fossil shell in mudstone.

"I knew what I wanted - to collect fossils," she said later.

Following an old geological map indicating reptilian bones in the Te Hoe Valley, she found the tail bone of a theropod dinosaur in the Maungahouanga Valley in northern Hawkes Bay in 1975.

Dr Wiffen went on to find bones from half a dozen other dinosaurs, including an armoured ankylosaur, a hypsilophodont, as well as a pterosaur flying reptile, and marine reptiles such as mosasaurs and plesiosaurs.

In 1994, she received an honorary doctorate from Massey University and the following year was made a CBE. In 2004, she accepted the Morris Skinner Award from the US-based Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology for outstanding and sustained contributions to scientific knowledge.

Her fossil finds are mainly held in the GNS Science collection.

A GNS spokesman said her efforts spanned arduous field work, painstaking fossil preparation, taxonomic description and interpretation.

Dr Wiffen is survived by her son and daughter and a stepson and their families.