The ancient marine limestone beds of the upper part of the Guanling Formation, Panxian County, Guizhou Province, SW China, yielded a wide range of high-diversity well-preserved marine reptiles such as the fully aquatic protorosaur with an extremely long neck Dinocephalosaurus orientalis, the oldest mixosaurid ichthyosaurs and lariosaurs. However, there is no precise isotopic age to study the intriguing origin, evolution and emigration history of the important fauna. We report a sensitive high-resolution ion microprobe (SHRIMP) U–Pb zircon age for a volcanic tuff bed within the upper part of the Guanling Formation. The result indicates that the age of the fossil horizon is 244.0±1.3 Ma, 14 Ma earlier than the previously estimated age based on conodont evidence. We consider that the marine reptiles had a relatively rapid evolution during Middle Triassic time, some 8 Ma after the end-Permian mass extinction.