Researchers discover super-rare owl species in Malaysia, unseen for 125 years

July 29, 2021
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When it comes to bird species, one can honestly say they’re hard to keep up with, regardless of your bird-spotting caliber. More so if the last time a certain species was spotted was over a century ago.

Often, rare species are stumbled upon accidentally, never with actual intention. But that’s what makes discovering them so thrilling in the first place. And perhaps one of the best places to go looking for our unique feathered friends is in the lush, mountainous rainforests of Borneo, twice the age of the Amazon at 130 million years old.

A recent study published in April 2021 reveals the rediscovery of the Borneon Rajah scops owl, last seen in the wild in 1892.

In the study, published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center ecologist Andy Boyce reports evidence of the existence of the Borneon subspecies, known scientifically as Otus brookii brookii, in the rainforests of Sabah, Malaysia. More specifically, near Mount Kinabalu.

Back in 2009, Boyce joined a team of researchers on a decade-long project that involved observing birds and searching for nests around Kinabalu Park in Sabah. Well into the long-term project, the avian ecologist chanced upon the Rajah scops owl in May 2016 after a team member had alerted him to a peculiar-looking bird, a species that looked completely different to the rest of the birds they had spotted at the time.

Lo and behold, a bird that was last seen over a century ago.

“It was a pretty rapid progression of emotions when I first saw the owl — absolute shock and excitement that we’d found this mythical bird,” Boyce explained. “Then pure anxiety that I had to document it as fast as I could.”

After carefully observing the bird from a safe distance so as not to disturb it, Boyce deduced that the Rajah scops owl was indeed its own unique species and needed further studying.

“Based on size, eye color, and habitat, I knew it was the Bornean Rajah scops owl,” he said. “What’s more, taking into account this bird’s specific plumage characters, known speciation patterns within the Otus genus, and phylogeographic patterns of montane birds in Borneo and Sumatra, O. b. brookii is likely its own unique species and further study is needed.”

It’s important to note that this bird species is not the same as its familiar cousin, Otus brookii solokensis, which is found in Sumatra. In fact, almost all available data on this bird species is of the Sumatran variant, nothing significantly covers the one found in Sabah.

In terms of size, the owl is a small creature, weighing only 100 grams (give or take), which is about the same weight as four AA batteries.

One might think that because of the owl’s elusive nature, and the lack of studies about the species itself, the bird would be prioritized in some sort of wildlife conservation scheme.

However, according to its listing on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, it’s a species of ‘least concern’. Doesn’t really make sense, does it? After all, given that the bird was only seen for the first time in over 100 years, one would make the safe assumption that its population numbers are quite low. Unless these owls are expert ninjas.

But Boyce and other researchers believe that conducting more hands-on studies on the bird could potentially influence its conservation status, putting it up higher in the priority list. However, in order to do this, there’s a lot of hard work ahead. This includes collecting blood and feather samples, observing the bird at night, and recording its various vocalizations, if any.

There hasn’t been another sighting of the bird since its rediscovery in 2016. But the team of researchers also wants to consider relying on locals who live in the area to relay any information they may have about the bird.

Due to their close proximity to the site of discovery, their chances of seeing one (if at all) are much greater than that of the researchers.

The Rajah scops owl was first described in 1892 by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, a British Museum ornithologist.

The bird was named after James Brooke, who at the time was the (White) Rajah of Sarawak, part of a dynastic monarchy made up of members of the British Brooke family. They ruled Sarawak from 1841 to 1946.

Experts believe the bird may have gone undetected for this long solely due to its nocturnal lifestyle. So this equates to more sleepless nights for researchers keen on elevating the bird’s conservation status.

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