In the forest of Africa’s Principe Island, scientists have found new kind of owl
On Principe Island, which is part of the Democratic Republic of So Tomé and Principe in Central Africa, a new type of owl has just been named. Scientists were able to confirm its existence for the first time in 2016, though people in the area had been saying it existed as early as 1928 and there had been rumors about it since 1998.
The discovery of the new species was written in the open-access journal ZooKeys. The description was based on morphology, feather color and pattern, vocalizations, and genetics. An international team led by Martim Melo (CIBIO and the Natural History and Science Museum of the University of Porto), Bárbara Freitas (CIBIO and the Spanish National Museum of Natural Sciences), and Angelica Crottini (also from CIBIO and the Spanish National Museum of Natural Sciences) collected and analyzed the data (CIBIO).
The bird is now called the Otus bikegila or the Principe Scops-Owl.
“Otus” is a general name for a group of small owls with a similar history. These birds are often called “scops-owls.” They live in Eurasia and Africa. The Eurasian Scops-Owl (Otus scops) and the African Scops-Owl are two of the most common species (Otus senegalensis).
The scientists who made the discovery also said that the name “bikegila” was chosen to honor Ceciliano do Bom Jesus, whose nickname was “Bikegila.” He used to catch parrots on Principe Island and is now a park ranger there.
The researchers say, “The Principe Scops-Owl was only found because Bikegila shared his local knowledge and worked hard to solve this long-standing mystery.” “As such, the name is also meant to honor all of the local field assistants who are so important to learning more about the world’s biodiversity.”
In the wild, its unique call would be the easiest way to tell it apart. In fact, it was one of the main clues that led to its discovery.
“The unique call of the Otus bikegila is a short ‘tuu’ note that is repeated quickly, about once per second. It sounds like insect calls. It is often heard in pairs as soon as it starts to get dark,” Martim Melo explains.
A lot of research was done on the whole island of Principe to find out where the new species lived and how many of them there were. The Principe Scops-Owl can only be found in the remaining old-growth native forest of Principe, which is in the southern part of the island where no one lives. There, the owl occupies an area of about 15 square kilometers, which seems to be because it prefers lower elevations. There are a lot of owls in this small area, which is about four times the size of Central Park. The population is thought to be between 1000 and 1500 birds.
Researchers have suggested that the species should be listed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List, which is the highest level of threat. This is because all of the species’ members live in this one very small place which will be changed soon by the building of a small hydroelectric dam. The International Union for Conservation of Nature still needs to decide what to do with this suggestion.
It will be important to keep track of the population to get more accurate estimates of its size and to see how it changes over time. In order to do this, a survey protocol has been made and tested that uses automatic recording units and AI to get the data from these units.
“Finding a new species that is immediately judged to be highly threatened shows how bad things are for biodiversity right now,” say the researchers. “On the bright side, the Principe Scops-habitat Owl’s is fully included in the Principe Obô Natural Park which will hopefully help protect it.”
This is the eighth bird species that can only be found on Principe. This shows that this small island which is only 139 km2 has an unusually high number of unique bird species.
Even though a new species of scops-owl from Principe was just named, genetic data showed that the island was likely the first in the Gulf of Guinea to be inhabited by a scops-owl species.
The researchers say, “It may seem strange that a species of bird has been unknown to science for so long on such a small island, but this is by no means an isolated case when it comes to owls.” “For example, the Anjouan Scops-Owl was found again on Anjouan Island (also called Ndzuani) in the Comoro Archipelago in 1992, 106 years after it was last seen. The Flores Scops-Owl was found again in 1994, 98 years after the last report.”
Martim Melo says, “When a new bird species is found, it’s always a reason to celebrate and a chance to talk to the general public about biodiversity.” In their paper, he and his team say, “In this age of human-caused extinction, a major global effort should be made to record what may soon be gone.”
“Birds are probably the most studied group of animals. As a result, the discovery of a new bird species in the 21st century shows that field-based efforts to describe biodiversity are real and that they are more likely to succeed when they are combined with local ecological knowledge, the help of enthusiastic amateur naturalists, and persistence” they added.
They think that this “new wave of exploration, done by both professionals and amateurs,” will help people reconnect with nature, which is important if we want to stop the global biodiversity crisis from getting worse.
Martim Melo et al, A new species of scops-owl (Aves, Strigiformes, Strigidae, Otus) from Príncipe Island (Gulf of Guinea, Africa) and novel insights into the systematic affinities within Otus, ZooKeys (2022). DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.1126.87635
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