Owls in the Fossil Record
As work proposed under [the
Global Owl Project] is directed at currently living owl taxa, only an
overview of owls in the fossil record is offered here to briefly
characterize the knowledge base and timeline of fossil owls.
Fossil owls are known from the
Eocene, and some living genera have been identified in Miocene, Oligocene (Brodkorb
1971; Walker, in Burton 1973), and Paleocene deposits (Rich and Bohaska
1976; 1981). Brodkorb (1971) listed some 41 extinct species of owls, 11 of
which were Tytonidae, 5 were Protostrigidae, and 25 to
The history of the Tytonidae
is an old one, and it is not known whether it originated in the eastern or
western hemisphere. The representatives of six genera of the Tytonidae
have been described from the Paleocene-Oligocene phosphorites of Quercy,
France, which illustrates the differentiation and radiation of tytonid
owls before the present era of mainly strigid owls (Mourer-Chauvire
Sub-recent and Pleistocene Barn Owl (Tyto alba) bones have been found in North America, Nuevo Leon and Yucatan
in Mexico, Brazil, Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, southern Europe, and
Israel (Brodkorb 1971; Mourer-Chauvire 1975). Other species of extinct
sub-recent and Pleistocene Barn Owls have been described from cave deposits
in Malta (Tyto melitensis), Mauritius in the western Indian Ocean (Tyto
sauzieri), and from the West Indies.
Owls from the West Indies were described by Alexander Wetmore as Tyto
cavatica (Puerto Rico), Tyto ostologo (Haiti), and Tyto
pollens (Bahama Islands) and by Oscar Arrendondo as Tyto noeli
and Tyto riveroi (Cuba) (Arredondo 1976; Olson 1978).
During Upper Miocene times lived
Tyto robusta, in the Gargano Peninsula (then an island), Italy (Ballmann
1973, 1976), along with the largest owl Tyto gigantea (larger than
the present day European Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo)).
An owl from the Strix group, and
of very large size (about 1 m tall), Ornimegalonyx oteroi has been
described from Upper Pleistocene cave deposits on Cuba (Arredondo 1975).
As no fossil bones belonging to
the European Scops-owl (Otus scops) have been found in deposits in Hungary and France older than
Upper and Middle Pleistocene (Mourer-Chauvire 1975) and the majority of
related species occur in southeast Asia, the European and African Scops Owls
probably have the same Asian source. Fossil fragments of a kind of screech
owl of the Otus kennicottii/asio type from the Upper Pliocene of
Kansas (Ford 1966) support the hypothesis that these screech owls are
derived from a tropical North American (vs. Asian) origin.
The Northern Hawk-owl (Surnia ulula) is monotypic in its genus and no fossil relatives are known.
Fossil records exist for this species from the Late Pleistocene in
Tennessee, United States (Parmalee and Klippel 1982), France (Mourer-Chauvire
1975), Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary (Janossy 1963).
Fossil records of pygmy owls (Glaucidium)
in the Americas are from Pleistocene deposits only (California; Mexico;
Brazil; Brodkorb 1971).
Fossils of Burrowing Owls (Speotyto
megalopera), somewhat larger and more robust than the present species (Athene
cunicularia), have been found in Upper Pliocene deposits in Idaho
and Kansas (Ford 1966; Ford and Murray 1967).
The Strix intermedia was
described from Middle Pleistocene fossils found in Czechoslovakia and
Hungary (Janossy 1972). Leg and wing bones of this owl are intermediate in
size and structure between those of current day
Strix uralensis and Strix aluco.
Pre-Pleistocene fossils of Strix brevis (Ballmann, cited by Janossy
1978) are somewhat larger and have slightly different proportions from those
of present day Strix aluco, and lend support to the theory that the
species differentiation between Strix uralensis and Strix aluco
is yet more complicated.
A representative of the genus
Aegolius was already present in the Upper Pliocene of Hungary and
remains of Boreal Owls (Aegolius funerus) itself have been reported from there too, from the Upper
Pleistocene onward (Janossy 1981). Aegolius funerus and the Northern
Saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) have also been reported from the Late Pleistocene in
Tennessee (Parmalee and Klippel 1982).
Many species of owl are recorded
from the late Pleistocene of Britain (e.g., snowy owls Nyctea scandiaca
and European eagle owls Bubo bubo, Harrison 1987), France (snowy owls Nyctea scandiaca
gallica, Mourer-Chauvire 1975).
In addition to the owls
themselves, fossil assemblages of the bones of small mammals are commonly
found in caves throughout the world. Since few such mammals live in caves,
it is recognized that these animals were accumulated primarily by
cave-roosting owl species, but by other means as well (Andrews 1990). These
small mammal remains yield information about environmental and climatic
changes, particularly those during the Pleistocene and Holocene.
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