This is a repost from my old blog site from April 2016 when, I swear to the Great Grey Owl, a marketing company tried to recruit me for what is a plot from a Simpson’s episode…except they were dead serious.
April Fools’ Day is tomorrow, and I am waiting with mild trepidation over what faux science gags I am going to see on the Internet. What I was not prepared for was to have someone actively try to recruit me to deceive the public in a pretty rotten way.
Let’s be clear right from the start, Dear Reader: I love a good prank. I’ve been on the receiving end of many a gag courtesy of my colleagues. The most recent prank was having my office filled with toy spiders – we refer to it as The Spidering…this happened over a year ago, and I’m still finding spiders (NOTE: This happened 5 years ago, and I am STILL FINDING PLASTIC SPIDERS IN MY THINGS. That’s OK: I got Rich back.) What I REFUSE to do is to actively deceive the public with regards to fossil discoveries, fossil heritage appreciation, and fossil conservation.
Enter my phone conversation from Tuesday afternoon.
I’m out of town, picking up some supplies for the up-coming field season. My cellphone interrupts my browsing. It’s a phone number from British Columbia. NOTE: As technologically slow as I am, I am pretty good at Googling phone numbers – I know exactly which organization made this call.
I will refer to the person on the other end as Skippy. Skippy was all excited to tell me of their great idea. There is a project that is going ahead somewhere in British Columbia (not in my neck of the woods), and those involved thought that a great way to get publicity would be to announce a fake dinosaur skeleton discovery as a result of said project. This plan was considered a good idea because, well, April Fools’ Day. Skippy continued: they even wanted to get the public involved in submitting names for their new fake dinosaur find. Skippy was wondering if they could use our institution’s name to lend their April Fools’ prank credibility.
Dear Readers, guess how I responded. I think I was quite polite under the circumstances.
The first words out of my mouth were “Absolutely not!” I went on to say a version of this:
There is already a culture of mistrust in the general public towards science and scientists. The public is also deeply interested in fossil discoveries and news, and trusts that when such news is announced, it’s for real. Faking a fossil discovery in British Columbia, using the name of a well-respected institution such as ours, would only serve to fuel such public distrust of scientists. There is no way that we could in good conscience take part in such a scheme.
I ended the conversation with Skippy by saying “And I had better not see our names anywhere near anything that you publicize.” Skippy’s response was “You won’t be included,” wording that makes me think that they are actually still planning to go ahead with this Scicomm Wrong.
Half-assed publicity stunts such as these give me nothing but anger and frustration. This is nothing more than manipulating people’s natural curiosity about dinosaurs and fossils for a project that will do absolutely nothing to further their appreciation of their province’s fossil heritage. There is no way that this can be spun as a scicomm opportunity: had our name been associated with this scheme, we would have lied to the public – April Fools’ Day or no – and given them a reason to get excited about dinosaurs in British Columbia. People trust us, whether they consciously recognize that trust or no, to give them trustworthy and factual information about the fossil heritage in British Columbia.
I will not apologize for this: I respect and greatly appreciate the public’s natural interest in their fossil heritage. For as long we are at the helm of our institution, we will never abuse that interest for the sake of tacky publicity.
British Columbia is only just starting to develop a cultural appreciation and respect for the province’s fossil heritage (and many organizations still have a long way to go towards viewing fossils as irreplaceable heritage and not just a get-rich-quick means to marketing). The idea that the public has a sense of ownership and pride over their province’s heritage is not yet at the levels we see in Alberta (or an even better example is South Korea), where fossils have been part of the cultural identity for decades. Being an institution operating in British Columbia and actively promoting a culture of pride and responsibility for fossil heritage resources is a serious business for us. We also rely on the goodwill of the public to be supportive of fossil heritage protection and conservation. We will not lightly throw that hard-earned trust away for the sake of a “joke”.
Public Service Science Announcement (PSScA): there is indeed such as thing as bad publicity, especially when it deliberately exploits people’s science curiosity for the sake of clicks or views.
UPDATE: Indeed, Dear Readers, I did scour the Internet for a week after this phone call to ensure that a) no “dinosaur” discovery was announced and b) anyone’s name that I knew wasn’t associated with it. I saw nothing, so maybe they took the hint.
Over the holidays (December 2017) I was at home, minding my own business – drinking tea, working on retooling the last publishable chapter from my dissertation, watching bad paranormal TV, and acting as a heated mattress for the kitty – when there was a knock on my front door.
Lo and behold, it was a door-to-door religious solicitor! Nowadays they are fairly high-tech: rather than try to hand me a pamphlet, his opening line was presenting his tablet/iPad and saying “Now watch this video and I’m sure it will help you answer some of Life’s questions.”
My grandparents had a sign taped to their door that read “No solicitors, religious or otherwise. We have no time, patience, or money.” Needless to say, they taught me well.
My response to these types of solicitations is polite but direct: I’m an evolutionary biologist, and my questions are already answered. I caught a very brief change flicker over the guy’s face – something akin to a flare of anger – but he wisely turned around and left.
Naturally, I shared my experience with my Twitter friends.
I let my mind free-associate a bit after that. I briefly thought about how funny it would be if, rather than having religious solicitors, we had science solicitors, going door-to-door spreading the Science. Of course my brain immediately jumped to “Science doesn’t preach: science provides learning opportunities.”
The more my brain played with the idea, the more my brain liked it.
I have completed one pamphlet* for what I’m calling Science Tracks: purely science communication pamphlets that can be used for any opportunity that arises for spreading the good word about all the awesome science that’s out there. I may have been a little optimistic about getting more than one completed over the holidays. One big reason is that I don’t want to use other people’s photos for this without permission, and the only pamphlet I could complete using my own photos was OMFG* BIRDS! (no one who follows me is surprised), but it is a start of something that I would like to continue. *Oh My Feathery Goodness.
We all know that Twitter can be somewhat of a cesspool of ‘splainers, sealions, and a haven for creeps in your DMs.
Twitter has also been a great place to connect with (good) people and share (good) information! I re-shared my previous post about Stolas and the Giant Cuban Owl Ornimegalonyx for International Owl Awareness Day. I was officially today years old when I learned about a legend of a giant owl and a giant extinct flightless owl.
Since I’m a big fan of big owls (and a big fan of small owls…and a fan of all owls, really) we’re going to run with the “giant flightless owl fossil and mythology” theme and talk about Chickcharney and the extinct flightless owl Tyto pollens, also known as the Andros Island barn owl, Bahamian barn owl, or Chickcharney.
Chickcharney, The Legend
Chickcharney (or Chickcharnee/Chickcharnie) calls the pine and hardwood forests of Andros Island, the largest island in the archipelago of the Bahamain Islands. Descriptions of Chickcharnies (there are more than one) tell of feathered bipedal creatures with a prehensile tail, three toes of each foot, and three visible fingers on each hand. Their red eyes are set in heads that can turn completely around. Around one meter tall, Chichcharnies are tree-nesters: if you see a tall pine tree with a fork at the top, that’s where the Chickcharnies will raise their young.
If you should happen to visit Andros Island and enjoy a hike in the forests, you would be best to carry a bright piece of cloth or flowers with you: this is said to charm the Chickcharnies. It is also best that one keeps a civil tongue in their head when they encounter a Chickcharney: they are neither “evil” (like the demon Stolas) or “good.” Chickcharnies are known mischief-makers. If you’re respectful to the Chickcharnies, you will have blessings and good fortune. Disrespect Chickcharnies at your peril, however: a lifetime of misery may follow. That may have been good advice for one former British Prime Minister to have followed, according to Chickcharney lore.
Chickcharney and Neville Chamberlain
Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister from May 1937 – May 1940, during the first eight months of the Second World War. Chamberlain is more well-known for the Munich Agreement of 1938 (the agreement that ceded western Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to appease Adolf Hitler) than he is for his involvement with Chickcharnies, but he does make an appearance in Chickcharney lore.
When Chamberlain was around 20 years old, his father apprenticed him to an accounting firm where he later became a full employee. Joseph Chamberlain saw his family’s fortune declining, so in 1890 he put Neville in charge of establishing and managing a sisal plantation on Andros Island. Sisal, or Agave sisalana, is a species of agave that is originally from southern Mexico but has been cultivated in many places around the world for its stiff hemp-like fibers.
In 1891 Chamberlain took out a lease on a 110 km square parcel of land on Andros Island for the venture. This was possible, of course, because Great Britain began colonizing Andros Island in 1783, complete with all that entails (a.k.a. slavery.) Great Britain wasn’t the first nation to colonize and exploit Andros Island. Prior to the arrival of Spanish colonists after the initial invasion of the island between 1499 – 1500, the Lukku-Cairi people lived on Andros. Thanks to the exploitation of the Lukku-Cairi people, by 1520 the population was considered extinct.
Chamberlain spent six years trying to make the plantation work. His efforts failed. The official story is that Agave sisalana did not grow well on Andros Island. That’s too bad for Chamberlain, because the failed plantation cost the family business a whopping £50,000 (or £4.2 million in today’s dollars). [Cue sad slide-whistle noise.]
What does this have to do with Chickcharney, you ask? Well, legend has it that during his ill-fated stay on Andros Island, Chamberlain openly scoffed at the stories of the Chickcharney (as European colonizers are wont to do at the legends and lore of the areas they colonize.) The Chickcharnies apparently did not take kindly to be openly laughed at. Despite the official story of sisal’s incompatibility with the area, the failure of the sisal plantation is credited to the intervention of the offended Chickcharnies. A nod is also given to the Chickcharnies for another event that will be forever linked to Chamberlain’s legacy: the Munich Agreement ultimately failed as it did not halt the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany as was hoped.
Don’t laugh at owls, my friends. Or legends/folklore of critters that resemble owls. It just isn’t worth the risk.
Tyto pollens, the Bahamian Owl
As we saw in the last OWLS! post about the Cuban Giant Owl Ornimegalonyx (Late Pleistocene: 126,000 – 11,700 years ago) and Stolas, the demon character from Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, are likely a case of wonderful coincidence rather than the knowledge of the fossil influencing the art/mythology. However, that may not be the case for Chickcharney and its Quaternary doppelganger, Tyto pollens.
Tyto pollens, also known as the Andros Island Barn Owl, Bahamian Barn Owl, Bahamian Great Owl, and – not surprisingly – Chickcharney, is a recently extinct owl that is in the same genus as the Barn Owl. The Andros Island Barn Owl is estimated to have stood at one meter (three feet) tall, and was considered by Wetmore (1937) as much more robust and stronger than the Barn Owl. Tyto pollens, like all owls, was a predator. What does a 1 meter tall owl eat? Wetmore (1937) thought that Tyto pollens likely preyed on the large rodent Geocapromys.
Tyto pollens is younger than the Cuban Giant Owl Ornimegalonyx in that it was present in the old growth pine forests of the Quaternary. This means that Tyto pollens was most likely seen by the original population of Andros Island: the Lukku-Cairi people most certainly encountered a 1 meter tall flightless owl. The owl was reported to have still been present on the island during the colonization by the Spanish and the British, so it is likely that any sightings of the Andros Island Barn Owl by the colonizers of Andros Island would have only served to strengthen the lore of Chickcharney. It was once the old-growth pineyards were deforested that Tyto pollens lost its habitat and went extinct in the 1600s.
Tyto pollens is noted to be very similar to another fossil owl, Tyto ostologa (Wetmore 1922) from cave deposits in the Republic of Haiti. Tyto pollens is reported to be larger than the Quaternary-aged Tyto ostologa. This is what I find the most fascinating about the story of Chickcharney: giant owls were not an isolated phenomenon.
The likelihood that Tyto pollens (and also Tyto ostologa) had inspired and influenced the lore of the Chickcharney is fairly high: the timing is right for the geographical and temporal ranges of T. pollens and humans to overlap. However, I really want to know for sure. The next step in investigating the Andros Island Barn Owl is to check documents written during the time period that Tyto pollens was still with us (a.k.a. extant) to see if there was any direct mention of a sighting of a giant owl or of a Chickcharney. I’ll be excited to see what turns up!
It’s time for the next installment of my OWLS! series of blog posts! This one is going to be a little bit different from my other posts…although, if you’ve read any of my Bigfoot or ghost posts you may not be surprised at the theme of this post.
My research takes me down a few interesting rabbit holes. One of these holes introduced me to J. A. S. Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal when I searched for “giant owls.” I was looking at adaptations that cursorial (ground-running or walking) birds have in the tarsometarsus bones. That is where I encountered Stolas.
Stolas is my favorite (is favorite the right word?) character of Collin de Plancy’s demon mythology from the perspective of both an owl fanatic and a palaeontologist. Collin de Plancy describes Stolas on page 635-6 of the Dictionnaire Infernal:
“Stolas, grand prince des enfers, qui apparaît sous la forme d’un hibou ; lorsqu’il prend celle d’un homme et qu’il’se montre devant l’exorciste, il enseigne : l’astronomie, ainsi que les propriétés des plantes et la valeur des pierres -précieuses. Vingt-six légions leire connaissent pour[;] general.”
Here is my extremely rusty high school French (with a double-check in Google Translate) translation:
“Stolas, great prince of Hell, who appears in the form of an owl; when he takes that of a man and shows [himself?] before the exorcist, he teaches astronomy, as well as the properties of plants and the values of precious stones. Known for Twenty-six legions; general.”
If Stolas were real, he’d likely be a great resource of information for many in astronomy, botany, and geology. The geology link of Stolas is what makes the connection of Stolas to paleontology even more interesting. As a field palaeontologist I would find a twenty-six-legion strong field crew very useful.
Most of the demonic entities in the Dictionnaire Infernal (and earlier works on the same subject) appear as human-animal hybrids or large versions of familiar animals. Collin de Plancy does not give us a sense of scale but one’s brain does jump to “large,” or at least larger than life, when talking about demons. The dimensions of Stolas are fascinating: the woodcuts of Collin de Plancy show an owl with rather long legs, standing on the ground. The legs are longer than the body. There’s a lot going on with the appearance of Stolas that suggests he is a walker. It is unlikely that Stolas’ teeny owl body with those teeny owl wings and itty-bitty tail could haul around those legs during flight (especially while wearing his resplendent crown.)
Bestiaries and Owls
Owls appear frequently in the medieval literature, particularly in bestiaries. Bestiaries (no, not bestiality, although the root of both words is the same) depict animals both real and fanciful, from the Amphisbaena (a serpent with a head at either end), to odd interpretations of real animals. Did you know the Barnacle Goose grows from trees, dangling from their beaks? According to the Harley Bestiary (c. 1230-1240), that’s where Barnacle Geese come from!
Or how about bees: did you know that bees come from the decay of the putrid flesh of calves or oxen (Isidore of Seville, 7th century CE)? Some explanations are implausible, others are darn ridiculous, but they were interpretations based on observations made at the time. The prevailing wisdom of the day, according to the bestiaries, was that owls were dirty, slothful birds that pollute their nests with their own dung. Barn owls do build up a layer of pellets in their nests when the young are still in house and feeding, but most birds are pretty good at keeping waste out of their nests. It was common knowledge that owls frequent graveyards and tombs, and their cries are harbingers of an impending death. It’s not a glowing letter of recommendation.
Owls and their portrayal in bestiaries is a whole other post, but these bestiaries were written in the 12th – 16th centuries. Bestiaries were not immune to the prevailing attitudes of the day. Some of these ideas were, well, racist and antisemitic as flock. With the negative interpretations associated with owls, it makes sense that someone with an interest in both the natural and the spiritual world would have a demon appear as a larger-than-life owl, ready to run you down if you lost your nerve during a demon summoning. We can safely say that Collin de Plancy and Friends didn’t actually summon Stolas (or any demon) to pose for a sketch artist. We can chalk up mystic depictions of demonic giant walking owls as a stroll down Imagination and Theology Lane.
The Giant Cuban Owl
Fast forward to Cuba, 1954, where we actually have knowledge of a giant owl. The Cuban Giant Owl Ornimegalonyx was an owl of the Late Pleistocene (126,000 – 11,700 years ago, also known as the Ice Age). Ornimegalonyx was discovered on January 2, 1954 and was recognized as the remains of a large predatory bird. The discovery site was a large cavern called Pio Domingo Cave located in the Sierra de Sumidero, opposite Pica-Pica Valley in Pinar del Rio. Ornimegalonyx was originally described by Oscar Arrendondo (1958) in a publication called El Cartero Cubano. Oscar Arrendondo originally used Ornimegalonyx arrendondoi as a provisional name, and he later uses Ornimegalonyx oteroi as the official name in his 1958 publication describing the type specimen. Arrendondo used the name “oteri” in honor of speleologist (scientists who study caves) and expedition member Juan N. Otero (Arrendondo, 1958). The type material (the bones that everyone has to look at if you want to work on fossilized giant owls) consists of a fragmentary femur (thigh bone), three fragments of a tibiotarsus (shin bone), an incomplete tarsometatarsus (the lower part of the “backwards-looking-knee” of a bird – it’s the same as our ankle), and some toe bones (phalanges).
Original descriptions of Ornimegalonyx have it belonging to the group Phorusrhacidae (also known as “terror birds”) because of the large size. Back in 1958, large owls were not on people’s radar. This small collection of bone fragments doesn’t sound like a lot on which to base the naming of a new critter, but there are parts of owl leg and foot bones that are Classic Owl. Ornimegalonyx was estimated to have stood about 1.1 m (3’7”) tall and likely weighed around 9 kg (20 lbs).
As owls go, Ornimegalonyx (orni = bird; mega = large) lives up to its name. Let’s look at its size in comparison to a fairly well-known and our largest owl alive today, the Eurasian Eagle-owl (Bubo bubo). The leg bones, the femur (thigh bone) plus the tibia (shin bone) plus the metatarsals of an Eurasian Eagle-owl are 10.8 cm, 15.5 cm, and 8.4 cm, respectively. We can estimate the leg length of the Eurasian Eagle-owl (give or take some soft tissue and cartilage) at 34.7 cm (or about 13.6 inches) long. The leg bones of Ornimegalonyx are 15.4 cm, 25.0 cm, and 14.7 cm. The estimated leg length of Ornimegalonyx is 55.1 cm (or 21.7 inches). This is how Arrendondo estimated the height of Ornimegalonyx at about 1.1 meters (3`7”)! Compare that to the height of the Eurasian Eagle-owl at 75 centimeters (around 30 inches). That’s a big owl! Most artistic reconstruction of Ornimegalonyx show a critter similar in shape to a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) due to the long legs and the interpretation that Ornimegalonyx spent more time running and walking than flying.
Was Ornimegalonyx unable to fly like our present-day owls? That’s an interesting question that’s still being examined. It’s definitely not the overall size of Ornimegalonyx that would have kept it grounded. The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is slightly taller than Ornimegalonyx at about 1.3 meters (4.3 feet tall). It is not even the estimated weight of Ornimegalonyx (uncited at around 9 kilograms) that would have made flying untenable: the Andean Condor weighs in at 15 kilograms.
Ornimegalonyx was not taller than a Secretarybird or heavier than an Andean Condor. Ornimegalonyx may have not been a “feathery death from above” kind of owl, but more of an “I will run you down” owl. Arrendondo (1976) states that the sternum (that’s the breastbone) doesn’t have a large enough keel (the bony projection in the middle of the breastbone) to hold the chest muscles required for a flying bird. Think of carving up the white meat of a turkey breast during the holidays: those are the flapping muscles of the downstroke of the wings, the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor. There’s enough of the sternum preserved of Ornimegalonyx to make a decent reconstruction.
The keel of Ornimegalonyx is not as large as that of a Burrowing Owl or of the similarly-sized Secretarybird. Even vultures have a comparatively larger sternal keel than that of Ornimegalonyx, and vultures are more known for soaring on thermals than for dive-bombing stealthy death from above. Given that Ornimegalonyx didn’t have a lot of room on its breastbone to attach flapping muscles, it likely spent a great deal of time on the ground, terrorizing the Ice Age mammals. However, new specimens and more investigation will shed light on this in the future.
Did Ornimegalonyx Inspire the Idea of Stolas?
Would Collin de Plancy have known about Ornimegalonyx, or preserved remains of creatures that would have inspired visions of demons, when he wrote Dictionnaire Infernal (1818; illustrated version in 1863)? We don’t have any reason to assume Collin de Plancy himself had any knowledge of giant fossil owls. As far as I know, there is no documented contact between Collin de Plancy and Cuba (I’m still looking.)
Theological interpretations of the natural world happened at late as the 1800s. Fossilized meat-eating dinosaur (theropod) footprints were described as the footprints of Noah’s Raven by Elihu Dwight as late as the 1800s. Edward Hitchcock later described these same tracks as those belonging to an extinct bird in the 1830s. Scriptural-based interpretations of natural phenomena were still prevalent when the Dictionnaire was written. Heck: these types of explanations for natural phenomena still happen today, so we really can’t side-eye past historians and naturalists too much if they assumed that demons appeared in owl-form.
The likelihood of Collin de Plancy having heard tell of fossils of Ornimegalonyx, or skeletons of a Stolas-like demon from Spanish colonies is possible. Spanish colonization of Cuba began during the 1492 expeditions, and was briefly colonized by Great Britain in 1762. French colonization of Cuba began in the 18th century and increased into the 19th century. People were aware of fossils during this time. In the 1400s there was recognition that the phenomena that we call fossils were the remains of ancient life. Fossils were even described by Aristotle (348-322 BC) as being once-living organisms that were “petrified.” Unfortunately, I haven’t come across records of pre-1900s discoveries of fossils on Cuba. Columbus was likely aware of amber (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/p/poinar-amber.html) as amber was used by the indigenous peoples who Columbus viciously exploited on the island of Hispainola. However, it seems unlikely that Columbus would have paid much attention to fossilized animals of Cuba, and there certainly has never been a report of a fossilized giant owl encased in amber.
Just because colonists may not have heard about giant fossil owls doesn’t mean they were unknown. People may have encountered Ornimegalonyx. There are records of people from the Palaeolithic Periods after the Ice Ages (Guanahatabey and Siboney cultures) living in Cuba.
It’s not often we have a real-life version of a mythical character such as Stolas. It doesn’t “prove” that Stolas is the real deal, or that owls represent demons. We still have a lot of work to do to shake off some of the negative associations people have with wildlife. Wolves, bats, owls, ravens, vultures: these are animals that are still associated with hunting, death, night, and evil doings. These animals are not evil: it’s only our associations and biases that interprets them as such. The more we learn about how wonderfully complex our natural world is the easier it will be (I hope) to exorcise the demons of our biases from these misunderstood animals.
Arrendondo 1958. Aves gigantes de nuestro pasado prehistorico: El Cartero Cubano, v. 17, no. 7 (July), p. 10-12, unnumbered text-figs.
Live nest cam season is here (and sadly it is now past: too many major life changes happened that put this blog post on hold)! Nest cams are windows into the wonderful world of a very important time in the lives of our present-day theropods: mate interactions, nesting, brooding, and raising young.
Besides being completely fascinating, watching owls (and hawks, and osprey, and albatross) nest and raise young is that we know that Cretaceous theropods also courted their mates (1), constructed nests, laid eggs, and cared for their young. Here’s a link to an earlier blog post where I cover theropod nesting, brooding, and determining the sex of a theropod: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2017/04/theropods-or-tender-pods-softer-side-of.html There is a lot that we can learn about the lives of extinct theropods by studying our present day theropods!
Other than the previous blog post on the tender side of theropods where I link to owl nest cams I realized, while watching the Barred Owl snooze in her next box, that I have never written about owls as their own topic.
So let’s talk about owls! I want to do a series of blog posts that highlight all that is fascinating about owls – I find everything about owls fascinating, so who knows how many posts this will be!
To start our conversation about owls we have to start at the beginning, which means we’ll be looking at the fossil history of owls!
Owl Features…In Bones
To talk about owls we have to talk about what features make owls what they are. If we don’t know what makes an owl an owl, we can’t figure out when owls first evolved. I’m only going to talk about owls as we recognize them from their skeletons because that’s what we have to work with as palaeontologists.
Owls belong to an order of birds called Strigiformes. This term was first coined by Wagler in 1830. To get into Club Strigiformes, you’d have to have the following characteristics:
Large, round, front-facing eyes (can fossilize),
Bony ring in the eye socket (sclerotic ring) is a solid, elongate tube (can fossilize),
Eyes in a circular or heart-shaped disk of radiating feathers (not skeletal),
Relatively large head (can fossilize),
Holes in the neck vertebrae where the arteries run through are about 10X the size of the artery (can fossilize),
Sharply hooked beaks (can fossilize, but shared with other birds of prey),
Hooked talons (can fossilize, but shared with other birds of prey), and
Feathers with serrated edges to reduce noise in flight (not skeletal).
Those are very general characteristics of an owl’s body. When we get down to the nitty-gritty of “How do I know my fossil bird is an owl?” we are dealing with parts of a bird skeleton that are more likely to fossilize than others. Skulls, with their thin braincases and thin bony struts, may not fossilize well (but it does happen). Bones that are relatively more sturdy, typically limb bones, have a better chance at fossilizing. This is why many of the oldest owl fossils are just that: limb bones or parts of limb bones. The most common limb bone of fossilized early owls that shows up in the scientific literature is one of my favorite bones, the tarsometatarsus.
If you picture a bird leg, you are probably familiar with the “backward knee” look that they have. That “backward knee” isn’t the knee at all: that’s the equivalent of our angle joint between the tibiotarsus and the tarsometatarsus. Remember those “if dogs wore pants” memes that circulated a few years ago? Well, if birds (and extinct theropod dinosaurs) wore shoes, they would look something like this:
The tarsometatarsus is one of my favorite bones in a bird skeleton because there’s a lot of identifying information in the area where the tarsometatarsus connects to the tibia and where the toes connect to the tarsometatarsus. I focused on the tarsometatarsus of shorebirds for my doctoral thesis because I wanted to understand the link between footprint shape and foot bones. [Results in progress.]
One of the obvious features of a bird of prey tarsometatarsus is the huge roller surfaces of the distal end – where the toes attach. Birds of prey are a lot like their extinct meat-eating dinosaur cousins: they do a lot of their prey catching with their feet. Those toes gotta be able to grip it good, so the roller surfaces are nice and robust. Check out the tarsometatarsus of a Bald Eagle.
Now, check out the tarsometatarus of a Great Horned Owl! Do you see the one roller surface – the outer roller – that is twisted?
This is a bony feature of a special owl foot trait, called the zygodactyl foot. Check out the feet of the Eurasian Eagle Owl coming in for a landing. Do you see how the outer toe is facing more backward than forwards? That’s a zygodactyl owl foot.
Even long-legged owls like the Burrowing Owl have a fourth/outer roller surface that is twisted!
One feature that diurnal (active in the daytime) predatory birds have is a built-in sun-visor over each eye. This sun-visor is called the supraorbital process. In diurnal birds this ridge can be very pronounced, but in nocturnal birds this visor is smaller. In diurnal owls (Great Horned Owls are an example) the ridge is well-developed!
In the Boreal Owl skull, we don’t see that bony sun visor: the edge of the upper eye socket is rounded and smooth. But check out those asymmetrical ear openings! This feature allows sound to come into the owl’s ears at two different levels, giving the owl precision targeting of small furry/feathery/fluttery prey. If you’re hunting at night, you need to pull out all the tricks to get a tasty meal!
These are two out of MANY features that make an owl an owl if all you find is the skeleton. That’s what we deal with when we talk about fossil owls.
Fossil Record of Owls: The Wise Oldest Owl
You might find this surprising, but owls have been around for a long time! We don’t yet have any definite owls from the Cretaceous Period, but in the time immediately after the Cretaceous – Paleogene extinction (when non-birdy dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago) owls are there! This suggests that owls – or very early versions of owls – may have evolved in the latest Cretaceous Period (2). Why is this? It’s because the “owly” features are fairly well-developed, and bony features take time to evolve in groups of animals.
That’s not to say that people haven’t thought they had evidence of Cretaceous owls. Bradycneme draculae (3) was described by Harrison and Walker in 1975 from the Maastrichtian (70 – 66 million years ago) age deposits of Transylvania (yes, they went there.) Following the description of Bradycneme as a Cretaceous owl, many researchers started to compare the end of the tibia (that’s the shin bone) to bones of theropod dinosaurs. It is very likely that Bradycneme is actually a funky little theropod called an alvarezsaurid (4).
Here’s an image of Patagonychus, an alvarezsaurid. Check out the wee little arms!
Our first Wise Oldest Owl comes from the lower Paleocene deposits of Colorado, USA (Tiffanian: 60.2 – 56.8 million years ago). Ogygoptynx wetmorei is known as a “protostrigid:” it’s really really close to being an owl it’s scary, and it has features that are seen in both typical owls (like Great Horned Owls) and the Barn Owl kind of owl. Ogygoptynx is known from a tarsometatarsus (5).
Our next Wise Oldest Owl is Berruornis, which comes from the upper Paleocene deposits (59 – 56 million years ago) of the Reims area of northeast France. Berruornis is known from – surprise! – a nice sturdy tarsometatarsus! One of the owly features of Berruornis is seeing the fourth distal tarsometatarsus – the roller surface – starting to get that zygodactyl twist! Berruornis fossils are also found from the Late Paleocene rocks in Germany.
This kickstarts my blog series on OWLS! The next post will focus on one fossil owl in particular…and this owl has some interesting mythological connections! Stay tuned!
1. Lockley MG, McCrea RT, Buckley LG, Lim JD, Matthews NA, Houck KJ, Gierliński GD, Surmik D, Kim KS, Xing L, Kong DY, Cart K, Martin J, Hadden G. 2016. Theropod courtship: large scale physical evidence of display arenas and avian-like scrape ceremony behavior by Cretaceous dinosaurs. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 18952 (2016)
2. Harrison CJO, Walker CA. 1975. The Bradycnemidae, a new family of owls from the Upper Cretaceous of Romania. Palaeontology 18(3): 563-570.
3. Naish D, Gareth J. 2004. Heptasteornis was no ornithomimid, troodontid, dromaeosaurid or owl: the first alvarezsaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from Europe. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie Monatshefte 7: 385-401.
4. Kurochin EN, Dyke GJ. 2011. The first fossil owls (Aves: Strigiformes) from the Paleogene of Asia and a review of the fossil record of Strigiformes. Paleontological Journal 45(4): 445-458.
5. Vickers-Rich P, Bohaska DJ. 1981. The Ogygoptyngidae, a new family of owls from the Paleocene of North America. Alcheringa 5(2): 95-102.
6. Mourer-Chauvire C. 1994. A large owl from the Palaeocene of France. Palaeontology 37: 339-348.