Animals of Cuba: Big Bird

by AMNH on

On Exhibit posts

Among the highlights of the exhibition ¡Cuba! was a life-sized model of Ornimegalonyx, a giant owl that became extinct about 6,000 years ago.

Giant owl model stands with wings spread, displayed in a realistically rendered cave environment.
Cuba’s extinct giant owl, Ornimegalonyx, was the largest owl that ever lived.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Ornimegalonyx was first described by the father of Cuban vertebrate paleontology, the late Oscar Arredondo, from subfossils—bones on their way to becoming fossils—found in 1954. All of the specimens, though, were incomplete, and scientists are still debating whether there was more than one species.

Arredondo oversaw reconstructions of the bird’s skeleton that were previously exhibited at Havana’s Museo de Historia Natural Felipe Poey. The new model on display in ¡Cuba! is a masterful likeness based on the latest scientific analysis.

The head of the owl model is mounted on a base and Brougham uses a sculpting tool to create feathers.
Senior Principal Preparator Jason Brougham at work on the model.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Extrapolating from fragments of bones, beak, talons, and other fossil evidence, Jason Brougham, senior principal preparator in the Exhibition department, worked closely with researchers to fashion a striking lifelike model from steel, polyurethane foam, and epoxy.

Long, pointed claws extend from the scaly skin of the owl's foot.
A detail of the huge claws of the Ornimegalonyx model.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Arredondo once speculated that “Ornimegalonyx had to have been the scourge and terror of most of the larger mammals of the Pleistocene of Cuba, and the claws and mandibles of this bird would have constituted a terrible combination of superior destructive power.” 

Two adults and two children read the signs in front of the owl display.
Visitors view a life-sized model of this 39-inch-tall bird in ¡Cuba!
© AMNH/R. Mickens

 A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall issue of Rotundathe Member magazine.