It is with some sadness that I must pass on the news that Cyril Walker died last Wednesday (6th May 2009). Cyril worked at the Natural History Museum from 1958 until his retirement in 1999. He is best known for his many palaeornithological contributions: often working together with his colleague Colin Harrison (1926-2003), he produced numerous papers on fossil birds from all around the world. Among the more noteworthy of these are the pelagornithid review (Harrison & Walker 1976a) and the Prophaethon reappraisal (Harrison & Walker 1976b). Cyril also contributed to Charig et al. (1986): the Natural History Museum’s definitive response to the ill-conceived and wholly erroneous claim that the London Archaeopteryx might be a fake [below is the only half-decent photo I have of Cyril, sorry about the poor quality. It was taken in Bournemouth in 1998. Gareth Dyke is on the right].
Some of the identifications and appraisals made by Cyril and Colin were criticised, and there is no doubt that they sometimes went too far in trying to identify fragmentary fossils (that is, they proposed identifications that were too specific given the quality of the material). However, this technique is capable of producing as many ‘hits’ as ‘misses’. In 1981, Cyril wrote a brief paper in which he described an assemblage of unusual bird bones from the Upper Cretaceous Lecho Formation of El Brete, Argentina. The El Brete bones seemed to belong to several, very distinct avian taxa, yet they shared enough unusual characters for Cyril to conclude that they represented an entirely new avian clade, phylogenetically intermediate between Archaeopteryx of the Jurassic and the ornithurines of the Cretaceous and Cenozoic. Cyril named this clade Enantiornithes (Walker 1981). His initial paper on this group showed remarkable prescience and later work was to wholly vindicate his ideas on these unusual birds. Several taxa are named after him, including the birds Proardeola walkeri Harrison, 1979, Explorornis walkeri (Nessov & Panteleyev, 1993), Eocolius walkeri Dyke & Waterhouse, 2001 and Eocathayornis walkeri Zhou, 2002, and the mosasaur Pluridens walkeri Lingham-Soliar, 1998.
Cyril was not only interested in birds, and also contributed to work on fossil turtles. In fact some of his oldest contributions are on members of this group (Walker 1979). He also participated in a lot of fieldwork, and was involved in the collection of many dinosaur and marine reptile fossils from the African Cretaceous [in the image below, Cyril and David Ward (at right) examine fossils in - I think - Niger. Image provided by Gareth Dyke].
I first met Cyril some time in the late 1990s when I was looking at cassowary specimens at Tring. We spoke about cassowaries a lot, but also about the Wealden dinosaurs I was working on, and I was surprised to find that Cyril knew quite a lot about them as well. Cyril was great fun to talk to, and over the years we had many vigorous discussions about birds and other tetrapods. I am pleased that he was able to briefly attend the ‘Dinosaurs – A Historical Perspective’ conference held in May 2008, but it was to be the last time I ever saw him. Farewell Cyril, you will be missed.
This year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting (to be held in Bristol, UK) includes ‘The evolution of birds in the Mesozoic: a symposium in honor of Cyril A. Walker’, organised by Gareth Dyke and Larry Martin. Thanks to Gareth and Dick Moody for information and images.
Refs – –
Charig, A. J., Greenaway, F., Milner, A. C., Walker, C. A. & Whybrow, P. J. 1986. Archaeopteryx is not a forgery. Science 232, 622-626.
Harrison, C. J. O. & Walker, C. A. 1976a. A review of the bony-toothed birds (Odontopterygiformes): with descriptions of some new species. Tertiary Research Special Paper 2, 1-62.
– . & Walker, C. A. 1976b. A reappraisal of Prophaethon shrubsolei Andrews (Aves). Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology 27, 1-30.
Walker, C. A. 1979. New turtles from the Cretaceous of Sokoto. The Nigerian Field, Monograph No. 1, 42-48.
– . 1981. New subclass of birds from the Cretaceous of South America. Nature 292, 51-53.