Morphing Japanese owl

The is the biological antecedent of Transformers.  The puffed-up owl seems to be making a threat display to a barn owl, but I have no idea what the Dracula display means.  Perhaps an owl expert can weigh in.

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UPDATE: Several readers have suggested that the owl’s “Dracula” pose may make it cryptic, and is an attempt to hide in presence of a large predator.  One reader cited the potoo, a neotropical bird whose coloration and behavior render it cryptic, resembling a tree branch.  Here’s the common potoo (Nyctibius griseus) in a cryptic pose.  It does indeed look like the Dracula owl (note that its eyes are closed, just like the owl’s):

29 Comments

  1. Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Looks like an eagle (or hawk) mimic. That hypothesis makes clear predictions, of course.

    • Ieatglue
      Posted July 13, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

      Actually, I think it’s trying to imitate a cat or a fox as opposed to another bird. That would explain why it makes its body so slender and lifts its ears.

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Maybe the Dracula display is trying to pretend it is some other type of animal. I was thinking a snake.

    Owls can be eaten by larger carnivorous animals, such as wolves, pumas, lions. Other predators of owls – eagles, humans.

    Maybe the owl is trying to look like one of the most dreaded human-like creatures: Ken Ham!

  3. Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Just throwing out a hypothesis here, but what if “Dracula” is a fear display. Get thin and branchlike to hide from bigger meaner owl. A reason to close eyes, avoid reflection from moonlight (or other light source). A prediction of this idea is that these owls often hand out in trees or on branches where this putative defense mechanism would work.

    Another idea. Goddidit. QED bitches.

  4. Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Maybe he is just p*ssed at being filmed.

    Regardless, that was pretty amazing.

  5. DMen
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    i think the “Dracula” transformation kind of looks like a Common Potoo.

  6. Thanny
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Look like a hawk or eagle, that might predate owls?

    Maybe it doesn’t have to be anything in particular. Perhaps the display has evolved simply to be freaky, and has been preserved by its success in freaking out other birds.

    Or maybe it’s the opposite of a threat display. It does that with the much larger owl, so perhaps it’s best explanation is along the lines of “I’m even smaller than you think, so you needn’t bother feeling threatened by me, and can move along now.”

    Guess I’ll wait on that owl expert.

  7. Dominic
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    What would its reaction be to an owl of the same species & sex I wonder? Similarly threatening / timid?

  8. s.k.graham
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Hey no fair putting up a vid like that and not providing species name or link to wikipedia article or something. Here it is:

    The Southern White-faced Owl (Ptilopsis granti)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_White-faced_Owl

  9. Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Lorax (comment seven) has it right essentially it is trying to look like a stick, using what has been called a “concealing posture”

    See: Holt, D.W., R. Kline, and L. Sullivan-Holt. 1990. A Description of “Tufts” and Concealing Posture in Northern Pygmy-Owls. Journal of Raptor Research 24: 59-63.

    • Posted July 13, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      sorry, comment 3.

      • Posted July 13, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        Yes, it’s #3. When I saw the “thin man” behavior, I thought all that was missing was the tree. Often, small forest owls will do this while standing on a branch next to the main trunk.
        Conversely, when the threat is more their size, you get the “bigger than thou” response.

    • Jeremy
      Posted July 13, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      That is remarkable! I suppose that means the correct interpretation of “displaying his ‘Cape and Glare’ at all times to the threat” (sic) is that it is:

      (a) keeping the thin aspect of its frame facing the predator, and
      (b) keeping its eye on the predator, in case it’s time for plan C!

    • Posted July 13, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      That’s right, I strutting!

    • Tim Martin
      Posted July 13, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Interesting coincidence then that this pose uses the standard V-shaped scary eyebrows of the animal kingdom.

  10. Posted July 13, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    In an act of aesthetic desperation, the owl is trying to protect itself from the egregious music.

    • Jeremy
      Posted July 13, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Haha!

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    The first display sorta reminds me of some Japanese ritualistic dances with hand fans. Maybe that’s where they got the idea?

    • s.k.graham
      Posted July 13, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      The owl is from Africa…

      • Hempenstein
        Posted July 13, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        OK, then, second hypothesis – maybe that’s why Japanese TV found it particularly appealing 🙂

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m pleased that so many naturalists won’t get it owl wrong.

    Brilliant bird, btw.

  13. Graham
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    As DMen says it looks very like a potoo (Nyctibius spp.) Potoos have evolved to look like tree branches.

  14. puzzledponderer
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I met this particular owl (Popo-chan) personally at the Kobe bird park, though they didn’t show us this particular phenomenon. Anyway, I can only recommend that place. The visit with my girlfriend there was one of the best birthday presents ever.

  15. kpm
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    This bird is simply trying to fit in… Vampires are all the rage these days. Popular culture can be sooo demanding.

  16. MartinDH
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    That owl was a “character” in the recent anime “Sora no wo to” and is shown (briefly) in all three of its guises.

    I thought that the animator was making up the contrast between the normal and “dracula” poses.

  17. Delusional
    Posted July 15, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Words cannot describe how awesome this is. Truly, nature never ever ceases to amaze.

  18. Alsee
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I think it is clear that the Dracula pose is NOT a concealing/hiding tactic. Watch in the video how the owl tracks the threat with large flagrant motions. That sort of movement would immediately draw the eye of a predator.

    It isn’t hiding. It knows that it has been spotted. It is putting on a show towards the threat. Watch the part where the threat moves and the owl turns to maintain the Dracula display towards it. It is actively staring at the threat, tracking it aggressively. It is saying “I’M watching YOU”, and “YOU want to get away from ME”.

    I would say the owl is definitely trying to be scary, putting on a second type of threat display.

    If I were a researcher working on this I would test this by examining the reactions of the other animal to this Dracula display. Be sure to use the species that most often provokes/views this display in the natural environment. If in a test setting that threat animal tends to overlook the Dracula owl then it would be a concealment tactic. However if the threat animal clearly sees the Dracula display and withdraws then it is almost certainly a threat display. It would be even better if the pulse rate or other responses of the threat animal can be tracked. This could potentially confirm a fear response by elevated heart rate or other indicators.

  19. Bruce Ruxton
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    This is not a Japanese owl, it is an Southern White-Faced Scops-Owl Scops (Ptilopsis granti) of Southern Africa. This particular owl is from South Africa and the name popo-chan comes from it’s call, popopopo.
    Apparently the skinny Dracula morphing is a kind of dead-stick camoflage.

    There are Scops-Owls in Japan, but not like this guy.


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