JAKARTA, Indonesia - A new species of owl believed to exist nowhere else in the world has been identified by accident on an Indonesian island when researchers in search of another bird noticed its distinct song.
The Rinjani Scops owl was first identified in 2003 and has since been spotted only on Lombok Island, about 15 miles from the popular resort island of Bali. The findings were published Wednesday in the online journal plosone.org
The small owl, with brown and white feathers and big, golden eyes, was confused with a similar-looking species for more than a century. But scientists from Sweden and the U.S., who were visiting the island doing separate research on another nocturnal bird, both recorded the Rinjani Scops owl's vocalizations. They noticed that its whistled note was entirely different from other songs, including that of the widespread Moluccan Scops owl, or Otus magicus.
"I am surprised that the true identity of this bird has remained hidden from the scientific world for so long," George Sangster, lead author from the Swedish Museum of Natural History, said in an email. "The Rinjani Scops owl is quite common and can be found on various parts of the island. It is also very vocal, so it is hard to miss."
He said it took 10 years for the discovery to be published due to the work needed to verify the finding.
The researchers reviewed all previous work and museum specimens dating to 1896. They found a report mentioning the Rinjani Scops owl's tone, which differs from the barking cry of the Moluccan Scops owl. But plumage, size and shape were primarily used to identify species until the late 1970s, when vocalizations were added. Lombok also remained less visited by bird researchers than other parts of Indonesia, which may explain why it took longer for the Rinjani Scops owl to be identified.