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The National Park Service is searching for a visitor who cut an “extremely rare” 200-million-year-old fossil out of a trackway in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah approximately five years ago, the agency said on Tuesday.
In a statement, Capitol Reef National Park officials said that the thief or thieves had removed a trace fossil containing footprints from an alligator-like reptile dating from the Triassic period. The park is offering up to $1,000 for information leading to the identification and prosecution of the responsible parties.
“Vandalism hurts,” officials wrote in the statement. “Some of the oldest and most extensive reptile tracks in the western United States are found within Capitol Reef National Park. Fossils preserve the record of life on earth and are exceedingly rare.”
Speaking to Salt Lake City’s KSL, Shauna Cotrell, the park’s acting chief of interpretation, said that the park only became aware of the theft after it published a picture of the site as part of a social media post about the park’s fossils. A paleontologist who was familiar with the area saw the post and contacted authorities to inform them that they believed something was missing. Through photo and paleontological records, the NPS determined that the theft took place sometime between 2017 and 2018.
“Fossils are extremely rare,” Cotrell told KSL. “I mean, just think of all the life that has ever lived on this planet and there are specific conditions that need to happen in order for a fossil to form,” Cotrell said. “They do give these glimpses back into life on Earth over these hundreds of millions and billions of years.”
Fossil theft is an ongoing problem at U.S. national parks, and Capitol Reef isn’t the only one to suffer it. In 2017, the National Park Service put out a similar call for assistance from the public after an unknown individual or group stole a set of fossilized tracks. At Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, so many visitors swipe bits of petrified wood that the park maintains a “conscience pile” of pieces that people have returned.