Fossil of 40,000-year-old ‘cannibal’ giant owl discovered in Ecuador

24 Jul 2020

Illustration of the so-called ‘cannibal owl’. Image: Sebastián Rozadilla

Researchers from Argentina and Ecuador have discovered the fossilised remains of an owl that preyed on its smaller relatives.

An owl unlike anything seen today, which roamed on the continent of South America 40,000 years ago, has been described as a “biological rarity” due to its taste for ‘cannibalism’. Speaking to a scientific agency at the Universidad Nacional de La Matanza in Argentina, researchers said the fossilised remains of the creature were found in the Ecuadorian Andes, 2,800 metres above sea level.

The first of its kind discovered in South America, the owl was more than 80cm high and had a wingspan of more than 1.5 metres. According to Argentinian researcher Gastón Lo Coco, the creature’s legs were “long and thin, effective in capturing prey that is difficult to subdue”.

Fossilised bones of birds, and in particular smaller owls, were found around the owl’s remains.

“By finding the remains of the animals that had been the last meals of the Asio ecuadoriensis, we were able to know that, among mammals and birds, it consumed especially other types of owls, which shows us that this giant owl was practically what could be called a cannibal owl,” said Dr Federico Agnolin, co-author of a study published to the Journal of Ornithology.

A rare find

A total of four species of owl were found in the cave, including three species that exist today and the so-called cannibal owl. Fossilised remains in the same area were hardened by volcanic ash between 20,000 and 42,000 years ago, corresponding to the late Pleistocene era.

The researchers said that the discovery of fossilised birds is a rarity as their bones are hollow and brittle. When this recently discovered owl was alive, the area would have been a wasteland.

Until about 10,000 years ago, huge mammals such as glyptodonts, giant sloths, mastodons and sabre-toothed tigers lived throughout South America. Researchers said that the changing climate in this era possibly played a part in the owl’s extinction.

“We think that the climate change that occurred about 10,000 years ago, when the Ice Age ended, was partly responsible for the extinction of these large predatory birds of which they remain in currently very few species, such as the great eagles of the forests and the Andean condors,” Agnolin said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic