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

Dating back to the early Eocene epoch, they represent the early stages of the evolution of modern birds.

The collection, amassed by the late Michael Daniels, a paleontology enthusiast, is considered one of the most important in the world. Its scope is such 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, Chief Curator of Vertebrates at the NMS, said The observer: “This is so exciting, a wonderful collection. Some of the birds have characteristics that are now found in various modern bird families – mixed together.’

The importance of the collection “cannot be overstated”, Kitchener said, both in the UK, where there are no comparable sites for fossil birds, and abroad. The patterns are all the more fascinating because, despite being buried in clay for millions of years, they are preserved in three dimensions. In other areas, they are usually found in a compressed state.

Kitchener paid tribute to Daniels, who promised the will months before he died last September aged 90. By day, Daniels worked as a carpenter and fitter, but his passion was palaeontology, which took him from his home in Lawton near Epping Forest to fossil sites outside London and elsewhere in southern England. In the 1970s, he took a more specialized interest in the Eocene London Clay, the period after the dinosaurs died out. After his retirement in 1985 he moved to Holland-on-Sea to pursue this interest in nearby Walton-on-the-Neys, which has a prominent London clay formation.

He became friends with Kitchener 25 years ago after he and his wife Pam moved to Edinburgh, where their daughter Caroline lived

While visiting the NMS, they met Kitchener, who recalled: “He said, ‘I’d like to see your collection of Eocene birds.’ I said, “I’d like to show you that, but we don’t have any.” Then he told me about his huge collection.”

Kitchener remembers him as an affable man who was largely self-taught but knew his subject and had a particular skill at finding fossils from the otherwise unattractive lumps of clay plucked from the rocks of the Naze. “Previously, only random stray bones were found there, but Michael discovered hundreds of more or less complete skeletons, from the fragmentary bones of a large archaic falcon ancestor… to the tiny skeletons of a hummingbird-sized bird that resembles a swift.”

Michael Daniels, a paleontology enthusiast, makes another discovery in Walton-on-the-Neys. Photo: Handout

Daniels estimated that he drove 27,000 miles and walked 1,590 miles on field visits to Walton-on-the-Neys to collect 15 tons of London clay. Kitchener said: “Extracting, processing, sifting and drying the residue was a painstaking task. Separating the relevant finds and combining the fragments into some sort of whole involved his watchmaking skills with binocular microscopes, 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 offered to provide the collection with a permanent home, but Daniels resisted all advances.

Kitchener said: “He believed in me that we would take good care of the collection. He also requested that we work with [avian palaeontologist] Dr. Harold Mayr in Germany to work on the collection.’

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

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

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

another, Nasidytes ypresianusis the ancestor of the loon or loon, except that, unlike the modern loon, it lacked the narrow, dagger-like beak and had wider jaws.

Kitchener added that the climate during the Eocene was much warmer than it is today, which may explain why the huge variety of bird species at Walton-on-the-Neys “looks more like what you’d see in the Amazon rainforest than Essex today. . “.

Once the collection is fully explored, the NMS hopes to stage an exhibition reconstructing the birds as they looked 55 million years ago.

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