The Borneo subspecies of Screech Owl Rajah (Otus brookii brookii), documented in the wild for the first time since 1892, may be its own unique species and merit a conservation designation. Posted on April 28 in The Wilson Journal of OrnithologySmithsonian Migratory Bird Center ecologist Andy Boyce reported the rediscovery and photographed this elusive subspecies in the mountain forests of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia.
“It was a pretty rapid progression of emotions when I first saw the owl – absolute shock and excitement that we found this mythical bird, then pure anxiety that I had to document it as quickly as possible,” Boyce said. “From the size, eye color, and habitat, I knew it was the Borneo-owl Rajah. Also, taking into account the specific characters of this bird’s plumage, known speciation patterns in the genus Otus and phylogeographic models of mountain birds in Borneo and Sumatra, O. b. brookii is probably its own species and further study is needed.
Owl scops weigh about 100 grams (about 4 ounces), which is equivalent to four AA batteries. Both subspecies of the Rajah’s owl are native to Southeast Asia – Otus brookii brookii on the island of Borneo and Otus brookii solokensis on Sumatra. Little owls of the genus Otus often show rapid divergence after isolation in this region. In fact, the Indonesian archipelago is made up of islands that facilitate species divergence, and Borneo and Sumatra have been particularly prone to speciation events.
The fortuitous find was made in May 2016 as part of a 10-year study of the evolution of bird life history at Mount Kinabalu in seven study plots at elevations of 1,500 to 1,900 meters (approximately 5,000 to 6,200 feet). The project was led by TE Martin, deputy unit leader and wildlife research biologist at the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Montana. While searching for a nest in May 2016, technician Keegan Tranquillo notified Boyce, then a doctoral student at the University of Montana, after spotting a perched screech owl that was larger and with different plumage than the smaller one. – mountain duck regularly encountered (O. spilocephalus luciae).
“Unfortunately, we can only keep what we know and what we call it,” Boyce said. “If this rare bird is endemic only to Borneo and is its own species, conservation action is more likely. Our only observation during this intensive study confirms that this owl lives in mature mountain forests. , probably above or below the study area. These altitudes are already threatened by habitat loss due to climate change, deforestation and the development of palm oil. To protect this bird, we need a solid understanding of its habitat and ecology. “
Almost all data on this species is from the Sumatran subspecies. O. b. brookiiVocalizations, distribution, reproductive biology, and population size are completely unknown. Despite the lack of information on species and subspecies and the apparent scarcity of Borneo taxa, the Rajah Owl has been designated as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Correctly resolve the ecology, distribution and taxonomic status of O. b. brookii could have important implications for the conservation of the two owl subspecies as each is believed to be an island endemic. Researchers recommend nocturnal surveys at specific elevations to study habitat, record vocalizations, and collect blood or feather samples to resolve the taxonomic relationship between O. brookii subspecies.
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