Group Spotted Taking 23-Million-Year-Old Whale Fossil in New Zealand

Several fossilized bones from a 23-million-year-old whale specimen have been reportedly removed.

The bones were taken from the bank of Little Wanganui River, on the northwest coast of New Zealand's South Island, by a group of three people who, per New Zealand magazine Stuff, lied about having permission to do so. They removed the fossil bones by cutting the rock below and took them away via boat.

Locals at the scene questioned the group but couldn't contact the authorities in time to prevent the bones from being taken away.

"They've kicked the hornet's nest with this one ... They stole from the wrong community," local resident Peter Lei told Stuff.

Whale fossil
The fossilized spinal column of whale lie on the desert pavement of Ocucaje, 310 km south of Lima, on July 4, 2012. In New Zealand, a locally treasured whale fossil was removed by a group of people, much to the anger of residents. GERALDO CASO/AFP/GettyImages

The fossils were treasured by the local community, with many visiting the bones throughout their whole lives. It is thought to be the bones of an ancient baleen whale that lived around the late Oligocene or early Miocene period, roughly 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, told Newsweek.

"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 displeasure of the local community, it is unclear if this act was actually illegal.

"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, told Newsweek.

"I do not know from the information available to me if the circumstances of 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 large sections of rock costs the scientific community, as any potential discoveries or data that the fossils may have gleaned are not available. This is the same reason why many scientists oppose the selling of fossil specimens to private buyers: any future study of that specimen is therefore cut short.

"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.

Additionally, if the group who took the bones were not trained in removal techniques, they may have caused damage to the fossil.

"They've used rock saws to define an arbitrary area, likely based on what was visible on the surface. What would be unknown without careful study and excavation is how extensive fossil materials might be within the rock (and not exposed). There is high potential for damage: cutting through diagnostic features, fracturing fossils, not collecting all the relevant components. Equally critical is that this is being done rapidly and without proper documentation. You are losing the critical context of the fossil—the positioning of the fossils, the orientation of remains, etc.—which is all-important to paleontologists," said Adams.

Fossil thieves are a common plague to paleontologists and archaeologists; for instance, 250 million-year-old fossils were reportedly stolen from Capitol Reef National Park in Utah in May this year. According to Adams, this is because there is a market by collectors that drives this sort of theft.

"In the worst case scenario, this will completely disappear into private collectors' markets. So, for example, if there were important aspects to these fossils for understanding whale evolution or New Zealand marine mammal communities, it's completely lost to science. The 'best' case is that anything recognized as being valuable ends up being offered at a later point to a museum to curate. However, as I mentioned above, you lose all the valuable contextual data that is critical to maintain scientific value," he said.

However, Walton said that fossil removal is not always necessarily a negative outcome, even when non-scientists are involved.

"Palaeontologists are often under-resourced (or rather, too few in number!) to collect, curate and document many of the eroding sites we have. Some specimens and information are often better than none, even if not of the data and curation standards we might use ourselves. Of course, amateur and inept sampling from palaeontological sites can be a bad thing for science outcomes," he said.