Science-- there's something for everyone

Monday, November 30, 2009

Raptors Strike

Here’s a story that begins and ends with feet.
A trio of Montana State University graduate students (Denver Fowler—no I didn’t make that up, Elizabeth Freedman and John Scannella) has completed a study of raptor feeding methods. Raptors are carnivorous birds, also called ‘birds of prey’, including eagles, hawks, owls and falcons.
The students began with a box of birds’ feet stored at the Museum of the Rockies, hoping to use the feet to determine the birds’ killing methods. Not surprisingly, the talons sizes and shapes determined how the birds held and killed their prey. What was surprising, at least to the MSU students, was that no one had studied this before.
It turns out that owls, which mainly eat small prey, rely on constricting the prey in their grips, whereas eagles and hawks, as hunters of larger animals, dig their larger talons deep into their prey and proceed to dismember it with their beaks.
The students were originally interested in studying dinosaurs, not birds. They had hoped the box of birds’ feet would lead to insights into dinosaur feeding patterns. Now that the connection between the size and shape of feet and killing method is better understood, scientists can reexamine carnivorous dinosaur feet.