This newly named owl from Príncipe Island calls like an insect

Locals suggest that the owl could possibly be traced all the way back to 1928.
Otus bikegila, a new species of owl. Philippe Verbelen

Meet the Príncipe Scops-Owl (Otus bikegila), a newly named species of owl found on Príncipe Island—a 53 square-mile island located off the western coast of Africa. The owl was first confirmed by scientists in 2016; however, some locals in the area suggest that it could date back almost a century to 1928. It has yellow eyes and primarily brown plumage and lives in the island’s rainforests.

The name “Otus” is the generic title given to a group of small owls sharing a common history, also called scops-owls. This group of owls are found in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and include the African Scops-Owl (Otus senegalensis) and Eurasian Scops-Owl (Otus scops). The second part of the new owl’s name, “Bikegila,” is in homage to a Príncipe Island park ranger, Ceciliano do Bom Jesus, whose nickname is Bikegila.

[Related: Whose hoot? DNA and sound studies help define two new owl species in Brazil.]

“The discovery of the Príncipe Scops-Owl was only possible thanks to the local knowledge shared by Bikegila and by his unflinching efforts to solve this long-time mystery,” the authors say in a statement. “As such, the name is also meant as an acknowledgment to all locally-based field assistants who are crucial in advancing the knowledge on the biodiversity of the world.”

All of Príncipe Island, which is part of the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, was extensively surveyed to determine the distribution and population size of the new species. According to additional research published yesterday in the journal Bird Conservation International, bikegila can be found only in the remaining old-growth native forest on the island. The area is in the southern, uninhabited part of Príncipe. The birds occupy a small space roughly four times the size of New York’s Central Park, with a population of about 1,000 to 1,500 owls.

The team has proposed that the International Union for Conservation of Nature add the bird to its red list and classify it as ‘Critically Endangered,’ the highest threat level, due to the bird’s concentration in such a small area. The team plans to continue species monitoring to learn more about the population’s size. The team notes that a bright spot for conservation is that bikegila’s habitat is fully included within the protected Príncipe Obô Natural Park.

An easy way to recognize bird species is through their calls, and bikegila is no exception in the wild. Its unique call was one of the main clues leading to its discovery. 

[Related: Meet the ancient owl that embraced daylight.]

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,” Martim Melo, from the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO) and Natural History and Science Museum of the University of Porto and leader of the team, explains in a statement.

The paper credits a real team effort combining various skillsets and determination for the successful discovery.

“Birds are likely the best studied animal group. As such, the discovery of a new bird species in the 21st century underscores both the actuality of field-based explorations aiming at describing biodiversity, and how such curiosity-driven endeavor is more likely to succeed when coupled with local ecological knowledge, the participation of keen amateur naturalists, and persistence,” they add.

The team also believes the discovery is a cause for celebration, as the Earth is facing a significant loss in biodiversity.

“The discovery of a new bird species is always an occasion to celebrate and an opportunity to reach out to the general public on the subject of biodiversity,” Melo writes in the team’s paper. “In this age of human-driven extinction, a major global effort should be undertaken to document what may soon not be anymore.”