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New species of owls found in the Philippines

August 21, 2012

A recent report issued by Michigan State University (MSU) illustrated two new species of owls that were found in the Philippines. The discovery took years to unfold as scientists used the birds' songs to validate their findings, featured in the newest issue of Forktail, the Journal of Asian Ornithology.

"More than 15 years ago, we realized that new subspecies of Ninox hawk-owls existed in the Philippines," said zoologist Pam Rasmussen of MSU. "But it wasn't until last year that we obtained enough recordings that we could confirm that they were not just subspecies, but two new species of owls."

It is one thing to be able to find a new species, but two species in the same report is nearly unheard of. In fact, Rasmussen and her colleagues were unable to think of a time when it happened previously.

The researchers found the Philippine hawk-owl or the Ninox philippensis had seven different species, two of which were unnamed or identified until now. The first was the Camiguin Hawk-owl is found on the island of Camiguin Sur and it has very different physical characteristics compared with other owls in the area, including their unique blue-gray eyes.

The other owl, the Cebu Hawk-owl, was originally thought to be extinct because the majority of the Cebu forest had been lost to deforestation. Even then, it was not considered to be its own species. However, once the structure of their vocalization was looked into, the researchers found it to be its own species, which led the study authors to identify two new species.

"The owls don't learn their songs, which are genetically programmed in their DNA and are used to attract mates or defend their territory, so if they're very different, they must be new species," said Rasmussen. "When we first heard the songs of both owls, we were amazed because they were so distinctly different that we realized they were new species."

Individuals who are interested in the two owls' songs can find recordings on the MSU website.

Those who are away for work or school may not be able to look after these newly discovered owls, but they can make calls to the Philippines with international phone cards to discuss the new species. 

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