Mystery of Omani Owl unraveled
An owl discovered in 2013 by Magnus Robb and the Sound Approach was thought to be a new species. This species was named the Omani Owl and created a stir among both birders and biologists. That a bird had evaded discovery until now was extraordinary. That it was described and named only using sound recordings and photographs was controversial.
A rival group of researchers re-examined museum specimens of closely related Hume’s Owl Strix butleri. The genetic analysis of these specimens, collected from various Middle Eastern countries, revealed that Hume’s Owl could be divided in two species: Strix hadorami which has a geographical range in the some of the Levant countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and Southern Oman and Strix butleri, for which there was just a single specimen from Pakistan. However, this study did not examine DNA of the new species found in Oman.
In March 2015, Magnus Robb and his colleagues returned to the mountains of Oman where they captured and released the newly identified owl species with the permission of the Omani Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), and as part of a joint conservation project with the Environment Society of Oman and BirdLife International. Feathers and blood from the owl were collected and analysed, proving there are indeed two Strix species in the Middle East. DNA analysis showed that the Omani Owl is the same as Strix butleri. In addition, DNA taken from a mystery owl in Mashhad, northeastern Iran in January 2015 by Babak Musavi and Ali Khani prove to be from an Omani Owl. This revealed that the owl still exists outside the Arabian Peninsula and 1300 km from the nearest record of this species. The new study, published online in bioRxiv journal, recommends dropping the ambiguous common name Hume’s Owl and retaining the name Omani Owl for Strix butleri, since Oman holds the only known population of this species, with only single individuals ever having been located outside Oman. This change was adopted by the IOC World Bird List in August 2015.
When Magnus heard unknown sounds of an owl in March 2013, he was, in fact, rediscovering a species previously known from just one tatty old specimen in The Natural History Museum (Tring, England) said to be from Pakistan, and collected 135 years earlier.
This new study once again underscores that much remains to be learned from owls. Magnus Robb’s recently published book ‘Undiscovered Owls’ describes his work on owls in detail.