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New owl species discovered in Africa

A team of zoologists led by the University of Porto has recently described a new owl species from Principe Island, part of the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe in Central Africa. Although its official description was published only now, suspicions of its occurrence started already to emerge in 1998, and testimonies from local people suggesting its existence can be traced back as far as 1928.

The Principe Scops-Owl, or Otus bikegila, belongs to a group of small owls – the scops-owls – found across Eurasia and Africa, and including widespread species such as the Eurasian Scops-Owl (Otus scops) and the African Scops-Owl (Otus senegalensis). 

The easiest way to recognize this species in the wild is its specific call. “Otus bikegila‘s unique call is a short “tuu” note repeated at a fast rate of about one note per second, reminiscent of insect calls. It is often emitted in duets, almost as soon as the night has fallen,” explained study lead author Martim Melo, an expert in the diversification of bird fauna in Africa at the University of Porto.

The experts believe that this owl can be currently found only in the remaining old-growth native forest of Principe in the uninhabited southern part of the island, occupying an area of just about 15 km2. In this small area though, the density of this species is quite high, with a population estimated at around 1,000-1,500 individuals.

However, since all the members of the species occur in this single, small location, the scientists have proposed that the species should be classified as critically endangered – the highest threat level on the IUCN Red List. Closely monitoring its population will be essential to get more precise estimates of its size and current trends.

“The discovery of a new species that is immediately evaluated as highly threatened illustrates well the current biodiversity predicament. On a positive note, the area of occurrence of the Principe Scops-Owl is fully included within the Príncipe Obô Natural Park, which will hopefully help secure its protection,” the researchers concluded.

The study is published in the journal ZooKeys.

Image Credit: Martim Melo

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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