According to reports, people have illegally removed fossils from a 23-million-year-old whale specimen.
A group of three people took the bones from the bank of Little Wanganui River on the northwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Per New Zealand magazine Stuff, the people lied about having permission to take the fossils. They also removed the fossil bones by cutting the rock below and taking them away with a boat.
When officials arrived at the scene, they questioned the group but couldn’t contact the authorities in time to prevent the bones from being removed.
“They’ve kicked the hornet’s nest with this one … They stole from the wrong community,” local resident Peter Lei told reporters.
Sadly, the local community took great pride in the fossils, with many visiting the bones during their lives. Some think they’re bones of an ancient baleen whale that lived around the late Oligocene or early Miocene period, nearly 23 million years ago.
“Fossils of marine mammals (amongst other species) are relatively common across New Zealand shorelines,” Dr. Justin W. Adams, an associate professor of morphology and paleontology at Monash University in Australia.
“This is because, as ocean levels over time changed, you end up with ancient beach and shore sediments that were once solidified (forming hard rock containing fossils) being exposed by tidal erosion. As a result, it’s not uncommon to locate exposures (or loose rock in tidal areas) that contain fragments of fossils. Larger specimens like these end up being more prominent/visible (as they apparently were well-known to the community).”
Despite the local community’s calls for justice, it is unclear if this removal was illegal.
Scientific and local community torn over whale fossil removal
“The legality of private collection and domestic trade of fossils taken from public land in New Zealand is a little bit vague,” Kerry Walton, a Ph.D. candidate at New Zealand’s University of Otago said.
“I do not know from the information available to me if the circumstances of the removal of this particular fossil were lawful, well informed, well executed, or conducted in good faith. Removal of fossils that are eroding out of coastal platforms can be the only way to preserve them in the long-term, enabling research and community interaction with the sample for decades to come,” he said.
According to Adams, removing these rocks costs the scientific community, as any discoveries or data that the fossils may have extracted are unavailable. This is also why many are against selling fossil specimens to private individuals, as any future study is null.
“If there are more parts of the animal (for example, very diagnostic parts that were in the rock and not visible on the surface), then this could be a significant loss. Without knowing what might be within the rock, however, it’s hard to gauge the significance for scientists (though the significance for the locals is clear from their comments),” Adams said.