OTTAWA: Two marine fossils dating to the Triassic period more than 200 million years ago have been returned to China in a case that highlights the problem of rampant smuggling of cultural property out of the Asian country.
Canada’s heritage department announced Thursday it had repatriated the fossil of a 220-million-year-old Saurichthys, a predatory fish with a long snout, and a 250-million-year-old fossil of an Ichthyosaur, a dolphin-like reptile that also featured a long snout and big eyes.
Details were sketchy Thursday as to how these artifacts ended up in Canada. Canadian Heritage officials said the Saurichthys fossil was intercepted by the Canada Border Services Agency in Edmonton in November 2009. It arrived in Canada labelled as a “stone carving.” Experts at the Canadian Museum of Nature and the University of Alberta later determined it was from Guizhou province in southwest China. The Ichthyosaur fossil was intercepted by RCMP in Calgary in July 2013 and was examined by experts at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
Canadian Conservation InstituteCanada has repatriated to China a 250-million-year-old fossil of an Ichthyosaur, a dolphin-like reptile that featured a long snout and big eyes.
Ryosuke Motani, a professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department at University of California, Davis, said Thursday the Ichthyosaur started off with a lizard-like body with flippers and evolved into a fish-like body. The one intercepted in Calgary appears to be a Mixosaurus, the intermediate stage when the Ichthyosaur was transitioning from a land to a sea creature. For three years, Motani led a team that uncovered about 50 specimens of Ichthyosaur in China’s Anhui province.
“The locality used to be an active limestone quarry until 2011, so it would not surprise me if, say, about the same number of specimens had somehow disappeared into private collections without being registered to the government database,” he said. “Then, some of these private specimens may have crossed the Pacific.”
Over the past decade, China has adopted laws that separate fossils from other archeological cultural relics and provide distinct protections for them, according to a 2015 article in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Such fossils can only leave the country on short loans for research purposes and export applications can only be made by Chinese museums or scientific institutions.
“Export of material from China has extremely strict legal controls and requires a detailed application to be submitted by a Chinese institution to be agreed by three tiers of the government’s Land and Resources body, before the necessary registration number is given,” the article states. “Even then, any material taken out of China for research under the terms of such a successful application is on a strict timetable for its return.”