Fossil-hunters have removed 16 pieces of rock in a raid at Portrush National Nature Reserve, an internationally important site.
It is thought that these will have contained examples of the ammonite fossils for which the Reserve is world famous.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said the fossils were of little commercial value, but 200 years ago were used to support the now-discounted Neptunist theory that igneous rocks – like those found at the Giant’s Causeway – were formed in ancient oceans.
The Vulcanist view that such rocks began as molten lava cooling to form basalts and granites is now the accepted theory.
Mr Durkan said: ” I am extremely annoyed at the thoughtlessness of the person or people who have damaged the Nature Reserve at Portrush.
“Their selfishness has spoiled the experience of other visitors to this important site, some of whom come from overseas specially to visit it. I expect members of the public to respect this Reserve and other aspects of our natural heritage and hope that anyone with information on this theft will contact the PSNI or Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA).
“Because of its historical importance Portrush National Nature Reserve has become a place of ‘pilgrimage’ for geologists and an important educational site for geology students. The damage caused by the thieves will mean that visitors to the Reserve will be hard-pressed to locate the fossils which made it famous.
“The professional geological community will be outraged at what has happened here.”
The Minister added: ““The reasons behind the theft are unclear but the rock samples may have been taken for research purposes, for commercial sale or for a private collection. PSNI will be asked to investigate. The fossils themselves tend to be of poor quality and are of little commercial value. Their importance lies in the false impression that they gave of fossils in igneous rock.”
Some of the most important geologists of the day visited the Portrush site and proved that the fossil bearing rocks were not basalt at all but were, in fact, sedimentary rock of Jurassic age which had been altered by the later development of the Portrush Sill, a huge mass of igneous rock that Portrush is now built on.
The heat and pressure from this molten rock baked the adjacent fossil rich rocks making them appear similar to basalt. The Vulcanists won the day, defeating what was effectively the Neptunists ‘last stand’.
Within the geological community, this debate was seen as the point at which modern geology dates from, where field evidence was used to refute conceptual approaches to geology. Some geologists even regard the rocks at Portrush as the single most important geological locality in the world.