New Owl Species Identified in Indonesia


The Rinjani Scops Owl. (Photo credit: Sangster G, King BF, Verbelen P, Trainor CR / CC-BY-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

The rinjani scops owl (Otus jolandae) makes a unique “poook, poook” hoot. But it wasn’t until recently that scientists figured out this bird—dubbed by Indonesian locals as “burung pok” for its call—was a new species. Turns out, it’s actually pretty common.

In September 2003, scientists George Sangster from the Swedish Museum of Natural History and Ben King from the American Museum of Natural History were on separate, unaffiliated trips to record large-tailed nightjars on the Indonesian island of Lombok. Instead of nightjars, they heard a unique, unfamiliar vocalization. Both Sangster and King took recordings, played them back in the dark, and attracted several of the owls, who had come to investigate intruders in their territory.

What Sangster and King eventually determined was that the owl looked strikingly similar to the moluccan scops owl, yet its whistle was remarkably different. The scientists spent the past decade confirming the evolutionary uniqueness of the rinjani scops owl by comparing similar species in museums, analyzing DNA, and collecting recordings and photographs. Declaring the rinjani scops owl a species came nearly ten years later, published this past Wednesday in the public online journal, PLoS One.

Identifying owls by vocalization rather than plumage is more beneficial for taxidermy discrepancy, as plumage patterns and colors can mimic other owls, reports Scientific American. Owl vocalizations are likely not learned but rather are genetic. In the search for a mate, an owl from one population doesn’t likely recognize vocalizations of an owl from another group, suggesting a unique evolutionary history for each vocalization.

Much of Indonesia’s vast biodiversity lies on Java or Bali, which are known for their endemic species. Once thought that Lombok didn’t house any endemic species like these larger islands, the rinjani scops owl proved researchers wrong. This owl is named after Indonesia’s second highest volcano (Gunong Rinjani) and Sangster’s wife.

“Our study underscores that even after 150 years of scientific study we still do not know all birds in the Indo-Malayan region,” Sangster told BBC News. “In fact, Indonesia is a treasure trove for taxonomists.” 

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