Dedicated collector: Michael Daniels and his Eocene birds

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A stunning collection of over 700
bird fossils has been bequeathed to National Museums Scotland. Collected in
Essex by Michael Daniels, the fossils date from 54-56 million years ago, the
beginning of the Eocene period. They represent the early stages in the
evolution of modern birds and contain many species which are new to science. Andrew
Kitchener, our Principal Curator of Vertebrates and Michael’s friend, tells us
more about the fossils, their significance, and the dedicated man behind such
an important collection.

“Please can you
show me your collection of Eocene
birds?”

This was the
question that greeted me when I first met Michael Daniels more than 25 years
ago. Visiting the museum with his wife Pam and his daughter Caroline, this
meeting would be the beginning of a long friendship and long-term
correspondence.

My answer was, “Well I would love to, but we don’t have any.” Michael proceeded to tell me about his remarkable collection of several hundred skeletons and part skeletons that he had discovered in nodules of the London Clay, which had eroded out of the cliffs at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex.

An older black and white photo of a man digging for fossils.
Michael Daniels excavating fossils at Walton-on-the-Naze.

In later years,
I visited Michael and Pam at their home and got to see the collection in its
countless drawers and boxes in his study. I was astonished at the amazing
variety of specimens of all shapes and sizes. Many of the bones were minuscule,
requiring great patience and skill to extract from their substrate.

Work is now
underway to fully document and describe the collection. Two papers have already
been published describing new species. One is a falcon-like bird and the other is
a diver or loon. Experts believe the collection could yield at least 50 new
species once research is completed.

A small box of fossils.
Some of the many hundreds of fossil bird bones from Walton-on-the-Naze.

But how did this
collection come about? Born in Whitstable, Kent in 1931, Michael had a variety
of jobs over the years, until he became a self-employed cabinet maker and
locksmith. But his one constant passion was palaeontology, which took him to
various fossil sites outside London and further afield in southern England from
his home at Loughton near Epping Forest.

Michael had a
knack to be in the right place at the right time. This led to his focus on a
narrow Eocene horizon containing 54-million-year-old bird bones at
Walton-on-the-Naze. Previously, only very occasional stray bones had been found
there, but Michael discovered hundreds of more-or-less complete skeletons. They
ranged in size from the fragmentary bones of a large falcon ancestor (similar
in appearance to a predatory phorusrhacid or terror
bird) to tiny hummingbird-sized skeletons of a swift.

Michael estimated that he drove 27,000 miles and walked 1,590 miles on 640 field visits to Walton-on-the-Naze to collect 15 tonnes of London Clay! He then took another 600 hours or 150 days to painstakingly prepare around 700 fossil bird skeletons.

An older photo of a man on a beach looking for fossils.
Michael Daniels making another discovery at Walton-on-the-Naze.

Motorway development in the mid-1970s of motorways not far from Michael’s Loughton home exposed these Eocene beds inland. His keen observation in the field attracted Michael to small pockets of material most people would not see in otherwise seemingly unremarkable clay beds. He found hundreds of fossils preserved in lumps of clay that had eroded out of the Naze cliffs, but that was only the start of the process.

Extracting,
processing, sieving and drying the residues were painstaking tasks. Separating
the relevant finds and marrying together fragments into some coherence involved
his watchmaker-like skills, a binocular microscope, probes and tweezers. He was
even able to extract the middle-ear bones of tiny birds!

An independent, strong-willed and largely self-taught palaeontologist, Michael took great pride in his collection, which he documented and analysed in great detail. He sourced the skeletons of living bird species to help him identify the fossil specimens.

Close-up of a fossil.
A fossil bird skeleton embedded in a nodule of London Clay.

Michael
developed his own system of 70 avian skeletal characters (with a total of 270
possible criteria) to score each skeleton and show how similar it was to a
living bird species. Despite this, many birds were difficult to classify
because they originated from near the beginning of the modern evolutionary
radiation of birds and often have characters mixed together that are now found
in different modern bird families.

In the Eocene,
the climate was much warmer than today. According to a recent study, global
mean annual surface temperatures were 13°C warmer than late 20th century
temperatures. The fauna from this site may therefore have important lessons for
today’s global climate change. Given this warmer climate in the Eocene, it is
perhaps not surprising that the former 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.

Michael
wondered whether a possible catastrophe caused the mass avian mortality at this
site. He explored volcanic evidence and the possibility of an asteroid strike. Michael
was particularly interested in the origin of some possible glass-like tektites
he found at the Naze, which might be evidence of this impact catastrophe.
Hopefully further research can settle this question using the small samples of tektites
in the collection.

Trays of fossils laid out on a table and shot from above.
Material from the Eocene birds collection at National Museums Scotland.
A drawer full of fossil specimens in wee trays.
Conserved material from the Eocene birds collection at National Museums Scotland.

The importance
of Michael’s collection cannot be underestimated. Both in the UK, where there
is no comparable site for avian fossils, and further afield. Other bird-rich
sites include Green River, Wyoming, USA; Messel in Germany, also of Eocene age;
and Liaoning, China, which dates to the earlier Cretaceous period. What makes
the Naze fossil birds so important is that they are preserved in three
dimensions (at other key localities they are squashed flat because bird bones
are so light and fragile). They also represent the early stages in the
evolutionary radiation of modern birds.

As you can
imagine, there has been keen interest in providing a permanent home for the
collection from several of the world’s leading natural history museums over the
years. Michael resisted all advances. It was only in early 2021 that he finally
decided that he would bequeath his remarkable collection to National Museums
Scotland.

A man stands by shelves and drawers, holding a fossil specimen.
Dr Andrew Kitchener with material from the Eocene birds collection.
A man holds a fossil up to the camera.
Dr Andrew Kitchener with a specimen from the Eocene birds collection.

We brought the collection to Edinburgh on 11 November, having spent a very long day carefully packing each specimen. Sadly, Michael died unexpectedly a couple of months before this on 27 September 2021. It was a sad task to be removing Michael’s collection from his now empty home, but I am sure he was glad that he had made the decision.

We are very
proud and honoured to host this collection. It will provide decades of research
interest with many new species of fossil bird awaiting a formal scientific
description. But the collection also provides an opportunity to study how this
wide diversity of birds fits into the wider Eocene ecosystem of what we now
call Walton-on-the-Naze. The fact that the collection is now with us here at
National Museums Scotland will be of interest to palaeontologists across the
world.

The quality of Michael’s collection meant that he’d already worked with several of the world’s leading avian palaeontologists. For example, he collaborated with Dr Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt am Main on new bird species, such as the parrot-like passerine relatives from the Green River, Messel and Walton-on-the Naze. Gerald has since been to see the fossils in our National Museums Collection Centre to continue working on them.

Two people standing over a drawer of fossil material.
Vicen Carrió, geological conservator at National Museums Scotland, discussing the conservation of the fossil birds with Dr Gerald Mayr from the Senckenberg Research Institute.

Sir David
Attenborough (anonymously) described Michael’s collection in The Life of Birds. He singled out the
“remarkable site” at Walton-on-the-Naze for providing “astonishing evidence of
this swift and rich development” of bird evolution “yielding over six hundred
specimens of ancient extinct birds.”

The extent of
this remarkable fossil assemblage is largely down to one man’s dedication,
which Michael summed up in his own words in a short pencil note found recently:
“Just a scrap of bone that proved to be bird … that strange but necessary
wherewithal and element of obsessive crankiness to keep going and continue
searching for 33 years”.

An elderly gentleman smiling with his thumbs up.
Michael Daniels at 90.

Research on and curation of the collection has already begun. Keep a look out for many more new species of Eocene fossil bird appearing in the palaeontological literature as researchers from around the world get to grips with the enormous diversity of Michael Daniels’ remarkable collection.


Acknowledgements

I would like to thank David Bain for his help and hospitality in the transfer of Michael’s collection to the National Museum of Scotland. I would also like to thank David and Bill George for sharing much of the biographical information which I have reproduced in this blog.