In November 2021 National Museums Scotland acquired a remarkable collection of fossil bird skeletons dating from the Eocene, approximately 54.6-55 million years ago. The story of how this collection ended up in Edinburgh is a very long one and began more than 25 years ago.
“Please can you show me your collection of Eocene birds?” This was the question that greeted me when I first met a Mr Michael Daniels more than 25 years ago. Visiting the museum with his wife Pam and his daughter Caroline, who lived in Edinburgh, this meeting would be the beginning of a long friendship and long-term correspondence, which ended sadly in 2021. My answer was “Well I would love to show you our collection of Eocene birds, 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. 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 the substrate.
Michael Daniels was a passionate self-taught palaeontologist, who visited various fossil sites outside London and further afield in southern England from his home at Loughton near Epping Forest. He developed a more specialised interest in the Tertiary Eocene London Clay in the early 1970s, having been a founder member of the Tertiary Research Group in 1969. On retirement in 1985 he moved with his wife to Holland-on-Sea, so that he could pursue this interest at Walton-on-the-Naze.
Biobanks may sound a bit dull when compared to shelves teeming with boxes filled with fascinating skeletons, or cabinets stuffed with colourful skins, beautiful eggs or pinned insects. Serried ranks of anonymous freezers, enhanced with the odd fridge magnet, could make your heart sink, but peep inside the biobanks’ databases and you will see an amazing array of biodiversity.
At National Museums Scotland we host one of the main hubs of the CryoArks Biobank initiative alongside our partners at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who also host a hub of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria Biobank, and the Natural History Museum in London. CryoArks is a project led by Professor Mike Bruford of Cardiff University and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to establish zoological biobanking in the UK. As well as the -80o freezer infrastructure to store the tissue samples long term, CryoArks is developing an online database that will allow researchers to find out what genetic resources are available in the CryoArks Biobank hubs and in member institutions. With the advent of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing in 2014, access to genetic samples from species from range countries is more challenging. Therefore, it is vital that we make the best use of the samples already available in the UK and make these freely available to support research, much of which may benefit the conservation of endangered species worldwide.
Many of us have probably been approached by eager PhD students and other researchers who want to snip a bit off those specimens or drill a few holes in others. As curators we start to feel somewhat uncomfortable about seeing our precious collections sliced and diced, and yet we are also keen to discover more about the genetic content of our specimens for their own sake. This is partly because collectively we can contribute to studies that benefit wild populations of species, including the conservation biology of many endangered species and the possibility of rewilding extirpated species. You may also have a chest freezer bursting with grip-seal bags or plastic tubes filled with tissue samples collected from specimens you have acquired, but you’ve no idea what to do with them, but you know they will be useful one day. Or maybe you have a freezer full of specimens you want to get rid of. CryoArks is a new initiative that just might help you to solve all these problems.
CryoArks is a BBSRC-funded project led by Professor Mike Bruford at Cardiff University, which has established the UK’s first comprehensive zoological biobank for research and conservation. CryoArks is a consortium of museums, zoos, academic institutions and biobanks, which is working together to establish common standards and working practices to store tissue and DNA samples and make them available on a common web portal, so that researchers and conservation biologists will be able to find out what is available for their research. This will help cut down on the sampling of our permanent collections by giving researchers something else to sink their scalpels into. CryoArks has two main sample storage hubs – at the Natural History Museum in London and at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh – that currently house more than 65,000 samples, but we have room for almost a quarter of a million. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is also a joint CryoArks and European Association of Zoos and Aquaria biobank storage hub, bringing the zoo and non-zoo biobank communities together.