Two New Owl Species Discovered In The Philippines

Two new species of owls have been discovered in the Philippines by Michigan State University researcher, Pam Rasmussen.

AsianScientist (Aug. 27, 2012) – Two new species of owls have been discovered in the Philippines by Michigan State University researcher, Pam Rasmussen.

Prof. Rasmussen is the MSU assistant professor of zoology and assistant curator of mammalogy and ornithology at the MSU Museum. According to her, the discovery, which is featured in the current issue of Forktail, the Journal of Asian Ornithology, took years to confirm, but was well worth the effort.

Announcing the finding of a single bird is rare enough, but the discovery of two new bird species in a single paper is almost unheard of.

“More than 15 years ago, we realized that new subspecies of Ninox hawk-owls existed in the Philippines,” she said. “But it wasn’t until last year that we obtained enough recordings that we could confirm that they were not just subspecies, but two new species of owls.”

The first owl, the Camiguin Hawk-owl (photo: right), is found only on the small island of Camiguin Sur, close to northern Mindanao. Despite being so close geographically to related owls on Mindanao, it has quite different physical characteristics and voice. They are also the only owls to have blue-gray eyes.

The second new discovery is the Cebu Hawk-owl (photo: left). This bird was thought to be extinct, as the forests of Cebu have almost all been lost due to deforestation. Study of its structure and vocalizations confirmed that it was a new species.

In fact, it was the unique vocalizations of both owls that confirmed that the new classifications were warranted.

“The owls don’t learn their songs, which are genetically programmed in their DNA and are used to attract mates or defend their territory; so if they’re very different, they must be new species,” Rasmussen said.

“When we first heard the songs of both owls, we were amazed because they were so distinctly different that we realized they were new species.”

The owls have avoided recognition as distinct species for so long because the group shows complex variation in appearance that had been poorly studied, and their songs were unknown. Both islands are off the beaten path for ornithologists and birders, who usually visit the larger islands that host more bird species.

The article can be found at (PDF, 997 kb): Rasmussen PC et al. (2012) Vocal divergence and new species in the Philippine Hawk Owl Ninox philippensis complex.

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Source: MSU; Photo: Oriental Bird Club/original painting by John Gale.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Sarah Chin is an animal management officer at the Singapore Zoo. She received a BA degree in natural sciences (zoology) from Cambridge University, UK. Besides caring for animals big and small, Sarah also enjoys wakeboarding and writing about nature and conservation.

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