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Hoax! There's No Eye-Plucking Prehistoric Owl on the Loose

Mar 26, 2015 12:12 AM EDT
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In a world where it's getting harder and harder to tell fact from fiction, it's healthy to be a skeptic about nearly everything you read. Such is the case for recent reports about a successfully cloned prehistoric owl - one far too many science and nature lovers were quick to believe and even republish.

The original article made its debut on Daily Buzz Live  - a satirical headliner site that masquerades as a professional news outlet. And if the site's outrageous content and sensationalist headlines aren't enough to let the average reader know that something is amiss, this article in particular should have been a big indicator.

The piece not only claimed that Brazilian scientists had successfully cloned a giant prehistoric owl known as Ornimegalonyx back in 2014, but it also detailed how the same owl recently attacked its keeper, gouging out his eyes with its gaping maw and large talons.

"The prehistoric owl remains in the custody of the scientists for further research and investigation on its behavior," the article reads. "Scientists say they will now take further safety precautions when handling the owl, such as face masks and protective bodysuits." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : various sources - photographer unknown)

It's important to note, however, that while Ornimegalonyx, called the Cuban giant owl, was indeed a real bird that existed tens-of-thousands of years ago (late Pleistocene to early Hologen), successfully cloning such a creature would not be easy. Nor would it be an accomplishment of such minor importance that the average person would only be hearing about it now - a year after the cloning success.

Nature World News has previously discussed the many difficulties real scientists face when attempting to clone a long-extinct species. Genetic information, for one, must come from remarkably well-preserved samples, and remain largely whole and undamaged. This usually means that the sample must be literally frozen in time, leaving only animals that lived in extremely cold and icy climes as contenders for cloning. Ornimegalonyx, which lived in a hot and tropical world, simply doesn't fit the bill.

According to the Natural History Museum in London, a promisingly long strand of seemingly perfect DNA was recently retrieved from a "fresh" 28,000-year-old mammoth by the name of "Buttercup" (discovered in 2013). This has given experts hope that they can replicate and insert the information into a fertilized egg in an Asian elephant surrogate mother. However, this is only possible because giant Asian elephants are very genetically similar to their mammoth ancestors. It remains unclear if there could even be an appropriate surrogate for prehistoric giant owls, as they are quite different from the night hunters on wings we see today.

What's more, the article says that the Ornimegalonyx flew at its keeper before attacking his eyes - an act that the real prehistoric bird, despite being about a meter tall, could never hope to pull off. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Stanton F. Fink) Ornimegalonyx oteroi

That's because the Cuban giant owl was a cursorial bird, meaning that it spent a great deal of its time traipsing around on two legs. Most paleontologists believe that this bird hunted on the ground and only took to the air in brief jumping flaps - certainly not a swooping nightmare capable of plucking out a man's eyes.

This description is also far from the perched and alien-like creature that the original article shows (as pictured below). Its legs, for one, are far too short to belong to a bird whose name roughly means 'giant claw bird.'

So where the heck did those photos come from? A blog post by Karl Shuker, a well known cryptozoologists, has the answer.

He writes how he first stumbled upon this quartet of bizzarre images when they were circulating social media sites more than a year ago. Then, the images were not associated with a prehistoric bird, and were instead something of an enigma. Was it an alien? A creature from hell? Some aberration of nature?

Shuker originally tried to get to the source of the photos, looking for the original photographer, who even now remains a mystery. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : various sources - photographer unknown) One of several photos of the mystery bird that have been circulating around the Internet.

"I discovered that [the photos] had initially appeared much earlier, having traced one site that featured them in October 2013 and another that had featured them even further back, in mid-April 2013," he wrote.  "On a Vietnamese website that I consulted (click here), it stated that the bird had allegedly been captured on the outskirts of a rural Venezuelan town."

This was the last piece of the puzzle the crytozoologist had been looking for. Due to the animal's incredibly large mouth and tiny beak, he had theorized that it belonged to the taxonomic order Caprimulgiformes, which contains five families of owls you wouldn't even believe existed until you saw them for yourself.

Nightjars (Caprimulgidae), frogmouths (Podargidae), owlet-frogmouths (Aegothelidae), oilbirds (Steatornithidae), and potoos (Nyctibiidae) all resembled this bird in one way or another, but none matched it to a T. The expert theorized that the animal photographed was a sick, mutated, or perhaps an unknown subspecies from one of these families... but which one?

If the photos had indeed been taken in Venezuela, Shuker wrote, it would suggest that what we are seeing is a strange potoo. This certainly makes a lot of sense, as the potoo has a similarly wide mouth and small beak. Frogmouths, on the other hand, have beaks that are oftean nearly as wide as their gaping maws, while nightjars are much smaller than the assumed size of the bird.

"Comparing the photos with confirmed potoo images online swiftly vindicated my opinion that it is merely a potoo, most probably the common potoo Nyctibius griseus," Shuker concluded. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Francesco Veronesi) A Great Potoo closes its eyes in the glare of a setting sun.

Still, it's important to note that the photographed bird's eyes leave room for doubt - something Shuker readily admits - as your standard potoo does not have pitch-black orbs.

However, a lot is still unknown about a great many species around the world, and it is far easier to believe that what we are seeing is an unusual variant of the potoo and not a revived prehistoric eyeball thief.

Then again, there's no telling what people will believe these days.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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