A collection of bird fossils bequeathed to a Scottish museum

A collection of over 700 bird fossils dating from 54 to 56 million years ago has been donated to the National Museum Scotland.

The objects are believed to include many species new to science, one being a hawk-like bird and the other a diver or loon.

The collection, hailed as one of the most important in the world by experts, dates from the early Eocene period and represents the earliest stages in the evolution of modern birds.

A notable feature of this time period is that the global climate was several degrees warmer than it is today, which means the specimens can provide scientists with useful information about climate change.

Palaeontologists said there was no other collection like this in the UK.

The rare specimens were collected over decades by amateur paleontology enthusiast Michael Daniels, who died aged 90 last year.

Dr Andrew Kitchener with fossil artifacts (Stewart Attwood/National Museums Scotland/PA)Dr Andrew Kitchener with fossil artifacts (Stewart Attwood/National Museums Scotland/PA)

He had assembled the several hundred skeletons and skeletal parts he had discovered in the nodules of London Clay, which had eroded from the cliffs at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex.

Experts said the objects are unusual in terms of bird fossils in that they are preserved in 3D.

Bird bones are light and fragile, so their remains are more often flattened before fossilization.

Mr Daniels’ daughter lived in Edinburgh, and it was during a family visit to the National Museum of Scotland more than 25 years ago that he shared news of his collection with the senior curator of vertebrates at museum, Dr. Andrew Kitchener.

Speaking of the fossils, Dr Kitchener said: “I was amazed at the amazing variety of specimens of all shapes and sizes.

“Many of the bones were tiny, requiring a lot of patience and skill to extract.

“The fact that the collection is now with us here at National Museums Scotland will be of interest to paleontologists around the world.”

Michael Daniels with a fossil (Stewart Attwood/National Museums Scotland/PA)Michael Daniels with a fossil (Stewart Attwood/National Museums Scotland/PA)

Work is underway to fully document the impressive results.

Experts believe the collection could yield at least 50 new species once research is complete.

Avian paleontologist Dr Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt am Main visited Mr Daniels on several occasions to view the fossils he had collected during his lifetime.

“The importance of the Michael Daniels collection cannot be overstated,” said Dr Mays, who has previously published two papers describing new species in the collection.

“There’s certainly nothing like it in the UK, and it’s comparable to other bird-rich sites in the US, China and Germany.

“The fact that so many specimens are preserved in three dimensions makes it one of the largest such collections in the world.”

The collection is currently undergoing curatorial and preservation work at the National Museums Collection Center in Edinburgh, where it will be housed and made accessible to researchers.

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