Meet Indonesia’s New Owl Species

The new species of owl makes a distinctive “pwok” call and is unique to just one island in Indonesia

Photo by Philippe Verbelen

Indonesia’s numerous islands (18,307 to be exact) house a wealth of avian biodiversity, yet scientists speculate that many of the country’s bird species have yet to be discovered or categorized. But ornithologists are celebrating today as a new species of owl joins the list, taking filling in one more spot in the catalog of the archipelago’s animals.

In 2003, George Sangster, a Dutch ornithologist from Stockholm University, and his wife were exploring the forested foothills of Lombak, an island just east of Bali. While traipsing through the forest at night, Sangster picked up on an owl call he did not recognize. Coincidentally, just a few days later Ben King, an ornithologist from the American Museum of Natural History, heard those same calls from the jungle and also suspected they came from an unknown species.

“It was quite a coincidence that two of us identified this new bird species on different parts of the same island, within a few days of being on the island, especially considering that no-one had noticed anything special about these owls in the previous 100 years,” Sangster said in a statement.

Locals on Lombak, it turned out, were familiar with the species. Known as burung pok–roughly translated as “pook,” a mimic of the owl’s hoots–the birds turned out to be a common feature of the nocturnal landscape. But locals on neighboring islands, however, said they had never heard of the bird and did not recognize its unusual call.

Here, you can hear the little Indonesian owl hooting into the night, which the researchers describe as “a single whistle without overtones:

Although birders and scientists alike love owls, surprisingly not much is known about those species’ biology, including how they relate to one another on an evolutionary scale. Lately, however, researchers have been working double time to get a grip on owls. In 1975, for example, scientists knew of 146 species, and that number leapt to 250 as of 2008. One driver behind this jump in species numbers was the realization that owl calls could lend clues (PDF) to classifying different types of owls. Owls hoot to attract mates and recognize one another as the same, so animals evolved calls unique to their species. In some cases, owls previously classified as the same species were split in two primarily on the basis of their calls.

Sangster, King and two other researchers from Sweden and Australia got together and were able to photograph the owls by playing back recordings of the call to attract several of the hooting culprits. Digging through old records, the researchers found that the owls matched specimens collected back in 1896 by Alfred Everett, a British administrator who was based in Borneo and spent his spare time collecting natural history curios. That same year, Ernest Hartlet, a naturalist who reported on Everett’s field work, accurately noted that “the cry is a clear but not very loud ‘pwok,’ like that of lempiji, but somewhat different in tone.”

Though Hartlet and Everett came close to identifying the new species, they fell just short of making the leap. Since then, no one had collected or observed this type of owl, according to records from the American Museum of Natural History and the Natural History Museum at Tring, in the U.K.

All of this evidence, the team concluded in a PLoS ONE paper, pointed to the discovery of a new species of owl.

Because the new owl shows dramatically less individual variation to its brown and cream-speckled feather patterns than similar species found on neighboring islands, the scientists hypothesize that ancestors of the Lombok owls may have been isolated and trapped on their island many years before by a catastrophic volcanic eruption. Starting with just a handful of individuals, the animals then could have slowly rebuilt their populations, eventually evolving into a unique lineage.

The species, they report, is the first bird known to be unique to Lombok. The authors named the new bird Otus jolandae, after Sangster’s wife, Jolanda.

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