55-Million-Year-Old Ancient Owl Fossil Sheds Light on Unique Hunting Feet

Scientists revealed that these ancient owls had trapped and killed its prey using its unique hunting feet

It was in 1990 that researchers discovered a unique fossil from the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming. Now, a new study has confirmed that these fossilized remains belonged to a pre-historic owl that lived on the earth 55 million years ago.

Owl's Unique Hunting Feet

Researchers have named these ancient owls, Primoptynx poliotauros, and they measured nearly 20 inches in length. According to researchers, these owls had a size very similar to the modern-day snow owl. Owls in the modern days use their beaks and toes to trap and kill enemies. But what makes Primoptynx poliotauros different from their modern counterparts was their unique hunting feet.

owl with feet
Senckenberg Research Institute

"Owls today have four toes with claws of equal size to catch relatively small prey and kill them with the beak. Primoptynx has a longer first and second toe, as seen in hawks and other members of the family Accipitridae. Those more developed toes are used to pin down prey, which is punctured by the talons. So it was an owl that hunted like a hawk on medium-sized mammals," said Thierry Smith, the co-author of the study.

Hunting Habit of these Ancient Owls

In an interview given to Live Science, Smith revealed that Primoptynx had hunted down mammals and primates lived on trees and grounds.

Gerald Mayr, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum suggested that more studies should be conducted to know how owls evolved as creatures that hunt using beaks when compared to their old style of attacking prey using feet.

"We assume that it may be related to the spread of diurnal birds of prey in the late Eocene and early Oligocene, approximately 34 million years ago. Competition for prey with diurnal birds of prey may have triggered feeding specializations in owls, possibly also leading to these charismatic birds' nocturnal habits," added Mayr.