While vanishing species receive a lot of well-deserved attention, new species are also continually being discovered and documented. About 18,000 new species are described scientifically each year. Estimates suggest millions more remain unknown. A new species of the adorable scops owl has recently been documented for the first time, emerging from obscurity. Announced in ZooKeys, the small bird is likely critically endangered, but utterly adorable.
Since the early 1900s, reports from locals on Príncipe Island—part of the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, off the coast of Africa—mentioned sightings of a small owl. In the late 1990s, researcher Martim Melo, of the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources and the Natural History and Science Museum of the University of Porto in Portugal, became interested in the elusive owl. “I was studying the grey parrot population of Principe Island with a local parrot harvester, Bikegila. He told of two instances where instead of finding parrot chicks inside the parrot nests (which are holes in trees), they found a scary-looking bird with big eyes. I immediately thought about owls,” Melo told Treehugger. Curious researchers also discovered mention of its existence in a 1928 letter in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History.
Working with locals including paper author Sátiro da Costa, researchers combined their knowledge of the dense forest to finally view and describe the bird, a species of scops-owl. Named Otus bikegila after the parrot expert (now a park ranger), the species has now been formally described. However, much is still unknown about the creature, as it has avoided notice for decades. It lives within less than 13 square miles of forest on the island, roosting in parrot nests high up in the trees. Melo worries about the future of the species: “Although inside this area it is relatively common, it is also highly sensitive to any changes that may occur there…Our results have shown that the species is very sensitive to human perturbation. A particular threat that worries us are the plans to build a hydroelectric dam. This will require construction work inside the park in an area where the owl is present.”
Despite their potential future threats, researchers are excited by the find. “I had a firsthand experience of its elusiveness: From my first suspicions of its existence, in 1998, it took me 20 years to first set eyes on it! Otherwise, it is fascinating as most owls,” Melo said. For now, the gentle night owl hoots and its big glowing eyes light up the forest night—and hopefully will for many years.
A new scops-owl species named Otus bikegila has been described on Príncipe Island, off the coast of Africa.
The owl has been sighted occasionally by locals since the early 1900s, but has long evaded scientific notice.