New Owl Species Discovered on Island Off African Coast

Researchers say it's critically endangered.

Principe scops-owl
Principe scops-owl.

Martim Melo

Even with huge golden eyes and a unique call, a newly discovered owl successfully hid for decades.

Researchers finally spotted the elusive bird from Príncipe Island, part of the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe in Central Africa. The Principe scops-owl is the eighth known bird species found only on that island.

Testimony from residents traced stories of the first sightings of this owl to nearly a century ago. In the late 1990s, there was more curiosity about the existence of an owl, unknown to science, that lived in the forests of Principe.

“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,” lead researcher Martim Melo, of CIBIO (Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources) and the Natural History and Science Museum of the University of Porto in Portugal, tells Treehugger.

“As oceanic islands do tend to have small owl species, often deep into their forests, it did make sense. There are two islands south of Principe (Sao Tome and Annobon) and each a species of scops-owl.”

Researchers kept digging and found a letter from 1928 in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History. The note was from a Portuguese collector who wrote that some local people had said that a distinct owl was spotted perhaps once every decade.

Help From Local Experts

Local knowledge was essential to the discovery of the species. Researchers named the bird Otus bikegila after the former parrot harvester who is now a national park ranger.

“If there is today the description of this new species, it is because of local knowledge and because of Bikegila in particular,” Melo says. “It was Bikegila’s sharing of the encounters with strange birds inside parrot nests that triggered this saga.”

Melo points out that the owls were spotted in parrot nests which are found in tree holes that are as high as 20 to 30 meters (65 to 98 feet). That means years of hard physical work when tracking the birds.

Other local field assistants, including co-author Sátiro da Costa, “have a deep knowledge of the forest and on how to spend long periods inside it, removed from any contact with the outside world,” Melo says. “Which is of course absolutely essential if we want to succeed.”

The findings were published in the journal ZooKeys.

Likely Critically Endangered

The owl is only now officially described, but researchers suggest that it is critically endangered. The main threat is that the species is found only in a single population in an area of about 34 square kilometers (13 square miles) but it uses only about half of that or less.

“Although inside this area it is relatively common, it is also highly sensitive to any changes that may occur there,” Melo says. “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.”

Melo says the most fascinating part of the new species is how it hid for so long. Their genetic analysis shows that it descends from the very first owl that colonized one of the Gulf of Guinea islands.

It arrived in Principe before any owl colonized neighboring islands and it was still the last to be discovered.

“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!” Melo says.

“Otherwise, it is fascinating as most owls. Being creatures of the night, we are first attracted by its evocative call, starting as soon as night falls, often in duets. Then, if lucky, we will meet its big eyes staring straight at us, which convey a mix of inquisitiveness and puzzlement.”

View Article Sources
  1. Melo, Martim, et al. “A New Species of Scops-Owl (Aves, Strigiformes, Strigidae, Otus) from Príncipe Island (Gulf of Guinea, Africa) and Novel Insights into the Systematic Affinities within Otus.” ZooKeys, vol. 1126, 2022, pp. 1–54., doi:10.3897/zookeys.1126.87635

  2. lead researcher Martim Melo, of CIBIO (Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources) and the Natural History and Science Museum of the University of Porto in Portugal