Sunday, January 29, 2006

Luminescent Owls

So I was having my usual midday walk through McCorkle Place on campus when I saw something pretty neat - a hawk chasing an owl! The big grey owl flew into a large hole in the ancient Davie Poplar and the hawk, dropping the pursuit, flew up into the branches of another tree. Where upon it was then chased off by yet another hawk that swooped in after it. Usually it's quite cool to just see one hawk soaring around, so this was something else. I was also amused to see the complete absence of any squirrels in the park, as it is usually knee-deep with them. I imagine there wouldn't be any people out walking if there were a couple of hungry tigers and a grizzly bear prowling around. After another couple of hours of coding I went back out for another walk and found the owl was still perched in the same large hole in the poplar tree. Convinced it would stay there for a few more minutes, I went to go get Val and his camera, and we got the following picture (Ok Val hasn't sent the picture yet - I'll add it when he does).

So I then go googling around to learn about owls, and I found something that I thought was really amusing. Everyone probably heard about the Will o' the Wisp when they were kids - stories of mysterious glowing lights that would float over the countryside at night. Well, while browsing through the articles on the Owl Pages I found this: A Review of accounts of luminosity in Barn Owls Tyto alba. He is arguing that bioluminescent owls are to explain for the Will o' the Wisp myth! Why would the owls be glowing? The first explanation proposed is that from time to time the owls will get bioluminescent organic material in their feathers from roosting in old trees that have luminescent bacteria or fungi growing in them (like Foxfire - see picture below).

The article linked to above then goes on to suggest that this is not the correct explanation, but rather that some owls are naturally bioluminescent. This seems a great deal less plausible to me than foxfire-smeared owls, although it isn't completely inconceivable. Genome sequencing is going be much cheaper in the future (I look forward to having mine decoded), and by the 2020s most animals and plants (and a lot of the fungi and bacteria) should be sequenced, so perhaps at that point you could just go over to google and simply ask "Hey, are there any owl genes that could code for bioluminescent proteins, or are perhaps a mutation or two away from doing so?" and get a quick answer (I suspect it would be no in this case).

So, have any glowing owls actually existed over the centuries, out swooping after field mice in the cool night air, to the bewilderment of onlooking European peasants? It's a charming idea, but it might just be the result of an overactive ornithological imagination. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if they do exist - the earth, at 510 million square kilometers in surface area, is a rather large place, and is filled with all sorts of fascinating creatures.

Search for smamot... Youtube has a video that's pretty interesting.
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