Natural History Museum palaeontologist who specialised in meat-eating dinosaurs and their direct descendants, the earliest birds
Angela Milner holding a small dinosaur tail vertebra in her office at the Natural History Museum. Photograph: The Natural History Museum, London
In January 1983, a chance find by a sharp-eyed plumber in a Surrey clay pit revealed one of the most important dinosaurs ever found in the UK. One spectacular bone, an enormous claw, gave it instant media stardom, and working on the description of “Claws” became the palaeontologist Angela Milner’s first dinosaur project, alongside her colleague Alan Charig at the Natural History Museum in London. The specimen was recognised as a new species that they dubbed Baryonyx walkeri, or “Walker’s heavy claw”, commemorating both its impressive weaponry and its discoverer, William Walker. This bizarre dinosaur, with a crocodile-like snout, was shown to be a fish-eater thanks to its preserved gut content of fish scales – the first time this behaviour had been recorded for a dinosaur. The impact of Baryonyx propelled Angela, who has died aged 73, to the forefront of dinosaur science, a position that she maintained for the rest of her career.
Dinosaurs became integral to Angela’s research and she established herself as a leading specialist on meat-eating dinosaurs and their direct descendants, the earliest birds, with the latter forming a nice connection with her frequent birding trips at home and abroad. In 2004 she led a team that reconstructed the brain anatomy of Archaeopteryx, the earliest bird, using the new technology of CT-scanning to describe a naturally-preserved internal mould of its skull. This work showed that Archaeopteryx had a brain that already differed substantially from those of its dinosaur relatives, with enlarged areas for better visual acuity and complex flight control. Angela was quick to realise the importance of CT-scanning in palaeontology and used the results gained from Archaeopteryx to lobby successfully for the Natural History Museum to buy its own machine. This foresight has allowed other museum scientists to peer deeper and further into fossils than was previously possible.
Angela Milner at the Natural History Museum with the robot of Baryonx, AKA ‘Claws’, the dinosaur species discovered in Surrey in 1983 that she and Alan Charig described and named. Photograph: Lorna Roach/Observer
However, dinosaurs were not Angela’s first love. She completed her PhD thesis on an entirely different set of extinct animals – early tetrapods. Tetrapods include all four-legged land vertebrates, and the transitions between fishes and the first limbed vertebrates, and between the latter and modern groups, are hot topics in evolutionary biology. Angela’s thesis dealt with a relatively obscure group of aquatic early tetrapods, called nectrideans, which lived around 360–260m years ago.
Generally, they were rather salamander-like in appearance, but had many odd features, including outrageous boomerang-shaped heads in some species. Angela produced a benchmark study on these animals, establishing a reputation as an outstanding anatomist and palaeobiologist. She continued to work on early tetrapod groups throughout her career, often in collaboration with her husband, Andrew Milner, whom she met and married in 1972 while they were still postgraduate students.
Angela also had forays into fossil marine reptiles, lizards, salamanders, turtle eggs and ancient footprints, with interests spanning over 350m years. She was one of the first to engage with “molecular palaeontology”, the recovery of ancient proteins from fossils, and was part of a team that extracted protein fragments from 125m-year-old dinosaur bones.
Although most of Angela’s work was based on museum collections, she enjoyed fieldwork and joined digs all over the world. One of the most notable was a major expedition to Niger in 1988, an experience that involved camel rides through the Sahara, sandstorms and hosting a BBC film crew that included Sir David Attenborough. She was also one of the first western palaeontologists invited to visit China, conducting a dig in rural Sichuan in 1982 and seeing first-hand a country that had only recently opened its borders to outsiders.
Her most visible achievement as a museum scientist was the current Dinosaur Gallery at the Natural History Museum, which opened to critical acclaim in 1992. Angela was the scientific force behind its development and made sure that it captured the cutting-edge of the science done at that time, as well as showcasing star specimens from the collections. Although she was never keen on the animatronic dinosaurs that are now common in museum displays, and would refer to them as “rubber ducks” with a dismissive sniff, this gallery remains the museum’s most popular attraction, pulling in more than 3 million visitors per year.
Less visibly, Angela was an outstanding administrator and in the latter part of her career managed a large team of curators and researchers, as well as helping to oversee major building renovations and helping in day-to-day work on the museum collections. Her patience and pragmatism were legendary.
Born in Gosforth, the daughter of Cyril Girven, the county engineer for Northumberland, and his wife, Lucia, Angela grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne, where she was educated at Church high school, and her interest in the natural world began at an early age. This led her to pursue a degree in zoology at Newcastle University, with the goal of becoming a microbiologist. However, a series of lectures from Alec Panchen inspired her to pursue palaeontology, and she began her PhD research at Newcastle in 1969 under his supervision.
After a stint in academic publishing, Angela was appointed to a curatorship at the Natural History Museum in 1976, with responsibility for fossil amphibians, reptiles and birds. During her time at the museum, Angela rose through the ranks, reflecting her expertise and administrative prowess, eventually becoming assistant keeper of palaeontology, a post she held until retirement in 2009.
Several extinct animals have been named in her honour – including the dinosaur Veterupristisaurus milneri – and her influence on her colleagues and on the development of the subject, both in the UK and internationally, has been immense.
Angela is survived by Andrew.
- Angela Cheryl Milner, palaeontologist, born 3 October 1947; died 13 August 2021