Rare collection of bird fossils from 55m years ago donated to Scottish museum

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A remarkable collection of fossilised birds that lived 55 million years ago has been bequeathed to the National Museums Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh and includes dozens of species that are unknown to science.

Dating from the beginning of the Eocene epoch, they represent the early stages in the evolution of modern birds.

Amassed by the late Michael Daniels, an amateur palaeontology enthusiast, the collection is described as one of the most important of its type in the world. Such is its scale that it will take several years to work through and describe all the specimens, but initial analysis suggests at least 50 new species.

Dr Andrew Kitchener, the NMS’s principal curator of vertebrates, told the Observer: “This is so exciting, a wonderful collection. Some of the birds have characteristics that are now found in different modern bird families – mixed up together.”

The importance of the collection “cannot be overestimated”, said Kitchener, both in the UK, where there is no comparable site for avian fossils, and further afield. The specimens are all the more exciting because, despite having been buried in clay for millions of years, they are preserved in three dimensions. At other sites they are usually found in a squashed state.

Kitchener paid tribute to Daniels, who promised the bequest some months before his death last September, aged 90. By day, Daniels’s various jobs included cabinet-maker and locksmith, but his passion was palaeontology, which took him from his home at Loughton near Epping Forest to fossil sites outside London and elsewhere in southern England. In the 1970s, he developed a more specialised interest in Eocene London Clay – from the period after dinosaurs became extinct. After retiring in 1985, he moved to Holland-on-Sea so that he could pursue this interest at nearby Walton-on-the-Naze, where there is a notable London Clay formation.

He had struck up a friendship with Kitchener 25 years ago, after he and his wife, Pam, moved to Edinburgh, where their daughter Caroline lived

Visiting the NMS, they met Kitchener, who recalled: “He said, ‘I’d like to see your Eocene bird collection.’ I said, ‘I’d love to show you it, but we don’t have any.’ Then he went on to tell me about his huge collection.”

Kitchener remembers him as a friendly man who was largely self-taught but knew his subject and had a special skill in seeking out fossils from otherwise unprepossessing lumps of clay eroded out of the Naze cliffs. “Previously, only occasional stray bones had been found there, but Michael discovered hundreds of more-or-less complete skeletons, from fragmentary bones of a large archaic falcon ancestor … to tiny hummingbird-sized skeletons of a bird that resembles a swift.”

Daniels estimated that he drove 27,000 miles and walked 1,590 miles on field visits to Walton-on-the-Naze to collect 15 tonnes of London Clay. Kitchener said: “Extracting, processing, sieving and drying the residues were painstaking tasks. Separating the relevant finds and marrying together fragments into some coherence then involved his watchmaker-like skills, aided by a binocular microscope, probes and tweezers, so that he was even able to extract the middle-ear bones of tiny birds.”

Several of the world’s leading natural history museums had offered to provide a permanent home for the collection, but Daniels had resisted all advances.

Kitchener said: “He trusted me that we would look after the collection well. He also asked that we work with [avian palaeontologist] Dr Gerald Mayr in Germany to get the collection worked on.”

Mayr, of the Senckenberg Research Institute, Frankfurt am Main, said: “The importance of Michael Daniels’ collection cannot be overstated. There is nothing like it in the UK, certainly, and it is comparable to other bird-rich sites in the US, China and Germany.

“The fact that so many specimens are preserved in three dimensions makes this one of the most important collections of its type in the world.”

He has just published papers on two species in the collection, one of which pays tribute to Daniels: Danielsraptor phorusrhacoides, a large ancient falcon with a narrow beak and long legs, which looked more like a caracara from the Americas than a kestrel or a peregrine.

Another, Nasidytes ypresianus, is an ancestor of the diver or loon, except that, unlike today’s diver, it lacked the narrow dagger-like bill, and its jaws were wider.

Kitchener added that in the Eocene epoch the climate was much warmer than today, which may explain why the huge diversity of bird species at Walton-on-the-Naze is “more like what you would see in an Amazonian rainforest than the Essex of today”.

Once the collection has been fully studied, the NMS hopes to stage an exhibition, with reconstructions of the birds as they would have looked 55 million years ago.