A new species has been added to the roster of birds that once lived in the West Indies.
It’s an owl, and an impressive one, a relative of the Barn Owl alive today but much larger. Gone for thousands of years now, it is known only from fossils unearthed in Cuba.
The discoverer, ornithologist and paleornithologist William Suárez, and Storrs L. Olson, curator emeritus in the Division of Birds of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, described the new species recently in the prestigious journal Zootaxa.
When they did, they bestowed on BirdWatching contributing editor Julie Craves an honor that few ornithologists ever live to see: They named the owl Tyto cravesae, or Craves’s Giant Barn Owl.
I interviewed Suárez and Craves about the owl, and the honor. My questions and their responses are below. — Chuck Hagner, Editor
What makes a barn owl a giant barn owl?
These extinct owls are called giant because they were much larger than living species of barn owls. In fact, at least one species was nearly twice the size of our familiar Barn Owl (Tyto alba, pictured at right). Their large size was the result of specialization in their mammalian prey.
Prior to the publication of Suárez and Olson’s paper, five giant barn owls from the West Indies had been described. In addition to describing Craves’s Giant Barn Owl as a new species, the paper reviewed the status of the other species, resulting in two of them being considered synonyms of others. Thus, we now have a total of four West Indian giant barn owls in the genus Tyto.
By the way, they shouldn’t be confused with extinct Cuban giant strigid owls, in the genera Ornimegalonyx and Bubo. (Ornimegalonyx, the Cuban Giant Owl, stood about three feet tall and is thought to be the largest owl that ever existed.)
What kind of bird was Craves’s Giant Barn Owl? How many years ago did it live? What did it eat?
Craves’s Giant Barn Owl was a nocturnal predator. It lived during the Quaternary, in the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago), but probably also into the Holocene, the epoch that followed and continues to the present.
Like all barn owls, it ate mostly mammals, especially rodents. While barn owls today most often eat mice and voles, the giant barn owls of the West Indies were specialists that ate larger rodents. Bones of prey found in fossil deposits formed by the predator indicate that hutias were the principal dish on the menu. Hutias are rodents endemic to the West Indies. They weigh from four to six pounds.
How was it related to the Barn Owl familiar to birders in the United States?
They are congeneric species, in same genus Tyto.
Read the abstract
William Suárez and Storrs L. Olson. 2015. Systematics and Distribution of the Giant Fossil Barn Owls of the West Indies (Aves: Strigiformes: Tytonidae). Zootaxa 4020 (3): 533–553. Abstract.
What does it tells us about Cuba (and the West Indies) in the Quaternary?
This fossil barn owl is another element in the West Indian avifauna that evolved to a gigantic form, resulting from the evolution on these islands where no predators on mammals existed, other than birds. The ecological role at the time completely relied on the raptorial avifauna, including large condors, eagles, strigid owls, and others.
What might have made it disappear? Could it have persisted into historical times?
For a highly specialized predator, it is very difficult to survive when your principal prey vanishes. This was the main cause of the disappearance of Craves’s Giant Barn Owl (and others). These barn owls probably persisted into the Holocene, after humans arrived on the islands.
William, where did you collect the fossils of Craves’s Giant Barn Owl?
I collected the material in June 1998 in a cave complex in Artemisa Province, Cuba, southwest of Havana. The bones were in a wall cavity about almost five feet (1.5 m) from the floor of the cave. This is also the type locality of several other fossil Cuban birds, including the Cuban Condor (Gymnogyps varonai) and one of the Ornimegalonyx owls.
Julie, how do you know William? You have described him as a “truly amazing person.” How so?
I met William over 12 years ago while assisting with a number of licensed bird-survey trips to Cuba. William participated as a guide and authority on Cuban birds through his position as curator at Cuba’s National Museum of Natural History. I liked him immediately — so smart, a great sense of humor, charming, and of course, a mutual interest in birds! Over the years, I grew to admire his dedication to science and West Indian bird studies. His perseverance and optimism no matter what obstacles he has faced have been sources of inspiration to me.
William, why did you name the owl after Julie?
For her dedication to avian conservation and her boundless appreciation of Cuban friends and birds.
Julie, why is having a species named after you a big deal?
Most people say it’s because it makes your name immortal. I’ve never been too concerned about my name living on, but my goal as an ecologist has always been to contribute to conservation in some way, however humble, that will make a difference in the future. William’s accomplishments far eclipse my own, so, for me, the fact that he respects my work enough to name a species after me is a true honor. That recognition means I must be doing something right, not to mention it affirms the close ties of our friendship. And yes, I will admit, the bragging rights are very cool.
Very cool, indeed. We couldn’t be happier for Julie. Please join me in congratulating, and bragging about, my dear friend on this profound honor. — C.H.
About Julie Craves
Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. Her column “Since You Asked” appears in every issue of BirdWatching. She has written for the magazine since June 1994.
Julie also writes regularly at Net Results, the blog of the Rouge River Bird Observatory; at Coffee & Conservation, her acclaimed blog about coffee and the environment; and at Urban Dragon Hunters, a blog about the distribution of dragonflies and damselflies and their role as bioindicators, especially in urban systems.
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