We have all heard the phrase, “Finders, Keepers”. If we are lucky enough to find a loonie, or a cool shell on a beach or maybe an interesting rock, we feel justified keeping it based on this premise. Well, in the field of palaeontology, this often is not the case and our museum experienced a great example of this with the recent return of the world renowned fossil, Tiktaalik.

Kieran Shepherd holds the fossil skull of Tiktaalik, flanked by scientists Ted Daeschler (left) and Neil Shubin.
Kieran Shepherd holds the fossil skull of Tiktaalik, during the repatriation of its fossils to the museum’s collections and to Canada by Dr. Ted Daeschler (left) and Dr. Neil Shubin (right). Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Canada has both federal and provincial/territorial legislation and regulations that control how fossils are gathered and where they can be permanently housed. For the most part, fossils found in this country cannot leave Canada other than for scientific purposes or temporary exhibitions. Palaeontologists who do not work at a Canadian institution are certainly allowed to come to Canada for fieldwork. They can collect fossils and take them back to their own laboratory for scientific study and analysis. At the completion of their study, the fossils must return to Canada and be deposited in a museum or university collection. Once in an official collection, the fossils can be properly cared for and then accessed for study by other scientists and students of palaeontology.

View of the Tiktaalik excavation site on Ellesmere Island.
The Tiktaalik excavation site on southern Ellesmere Island, Nunavut in 2004. Image: Ted Daeschler © T. Daeschler/VIREO.

Tiktaalik is a wonderful fossil now back in Canada after an absence of more than 10 years. A team of palaeontologists from the United States headed by Ted Daeschler and Neil Shubin painstakingly prepared and studied this unique find, which they collected in 2004 on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut.

View of the model of Tiktaalik, with boxes containing the real fossils in the background.
These boxes contain the “repatriated” fossils of Tiktaalik and two other type specimens of lobe-finned fish. The fossils were handed over to the museum recently by the American scientists that discovered and studied them. In foreground is a model and cast of Tiktaalik. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Tiktaalik was a transitional animal that made the evolutionary link between fish and land-based animals. As such, Tiktaalik, which lived 375 million years ago, has shared characteristics of both fish and land-based tetrapods. In Tiktaalik’s time, the Arctic was located close to the equator and would have been a warm, topical region.

Illustration of Tiktaalik as a living animal.
Illustration of what a living Tiktaalik roseae might have looked like. Image: Flick Ford © Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadephia/VIREO

Legislation protecting fossils was enacted by the Territorial government of Nunavut in 2000. All fossils collected from that Territory must eventually be returned there after study. Since Nunavut does not yet have a suitable facility to house such rare fossils, the Canadian Museum of Nature is the temporary home for such finds, where they are curated at our Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec.

Certainly we will hear more about Tikaalik for years to come, especially as other researchers get a chance to study it. Those wishing to see a model of Tiktaalik should come to the Open House at our Gatineau collections facility on October 24. Visit our web site, nature.ca, for more details closer to the date.

See our Nature Scoop video about this amazing fossil.