New owl species discovery in Oman?


The owl in Oman, photo by Arnoud van den Berg

From the BBC:

Owl recorded in Oman could be a new species

By Victoria Gill, Science reporter, BBC News

4 October 2013 Last updated at 06:43 GMT

Ornithologists working in Oman say an owl discovered in a remote, mountainous region could be a new species.

Wildlife sound-recordist Magnus Robb told BBC News that he heard the bird’s call whilst trying to record the call of another type of owl.

That other owl species was the pallid scops owl. The new owl species’ call differed as well from a relative, also present in Oman, the Hume’s tawny owl.

After repeated trips to the remote site, he and a colleague – naturalist and photographer Arnoud van den Berg – captured photographs of the bird.

They have published their observations in the journal Dutch Birding.

Mr Robb’s first recordings of the bird’s unfamiliar hoot were a serendipitous discovery in March of this year.

“I was listening through my headphones, when I suddenly heard something completely different [to the owl species I was there to record],” he told BBC News.

“I know the other Arabian owl sounds quite well, and this was clearly something that didn’t fit.”

The bird call expert said he had a “good inkling straight away that this could be something new”.

“I even phoned a colleague a few minutes later and said, ‘I think I’ve just discovered a new species of owl.”

Mr Robb, who is involved in an international project called the Sound Approach, which aims to catalogue and understand bird sound, analysed the owls’ call in detail.

This revealed that the bird was most likely to belong to a genus, or group of species, known as Strix.

Dr Wesley Hochachka from Cornell University’s lab of ornithology commented that, in the last few decades, it had become “more accepted by ornithologists, particularly in tropical areas, that new species are being discovered based on distinctively different vocalisations”.

The team plans to gather DNA evidence from the owl’s feathers in order to confirm their find genetically.

But Prof Ian Newton, a bird expert from the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said he found the evidence that the team had already provided convincing.

“Based on the recordings of songs and calls and on the good-quality photographs, I was also convinced that it should be placed within the genus Strix, which also contains the Tawny Owl of Britain and Europe,” he told BBC News.

Mr Robb said he hoped eventually to name the new species the Omani owl, in honour of the Omani people.

“One of the reasons we’ve gone through this process of describing and confirming this as a new species so quickly is to get conservation for this owl as soon as possible,” he explained to BBC News.

“Conservation can only start when this species is accepted and given some official status.”

He hopes to return to Oman later this year in to learn more about the owl, its habitat and its behaviour.

So far, he and and his colleagues have found only seven of the birds in a single wadi in the remote, mountainous area of Oman.

“This suggests that it’s a very rare creature indeed,” he told BBC News.

More about this, including sound recordings of the owl calling, is here.

Dutch TV program Vroege Vogels writes about this (translated):

The last new [bird] species, discovered in the Middle East, were the Arabian Scops Owl (Otus pamelae) and the Arabian Magpie (Pica asirensis), both described in 1937 but discovered in 1936.

See also here.

Coral-destroying starfish research


This video from Oman says about itself:

The crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci ) [is] one of the oceans’ most efficient coral predators. They can grow to more than 1 m in diameter; have 16 to 18 arms, the entire upper surface of its body covered in long venomous spines. This species was recorded in our … survey at Musandam peninsula.

From Wildlife Extra:

Reef devastation caused [by] Crown-of-thorns outbreaks still a mystery to researchers

Researchers tackle the coral-killing starfish

February 2013. Crown-of-thorns Acanthaster planci is the principle natural enemy of reef-building corals. Outbreaks of this coral-feeding starfish occur periodically, due to reasons that remain unclear. It decimates entire reefs in the space of just a few years, as has been the case in French Polynesia since 2004. A new study conducted by IRD researchers and their partners describes this population explosion around Moorea, the “sister island of Tahiti“. The rate of living coral cover in ocean depths and lagoons alike dropped from 50% (healthy reef) to under 5% in 2009. The ecosystem will need at least a decade to be restored to its original state.

The starfish has spread from island to island

The archipelago has been suffering from a new population explosion of the predatory starfish since 2004. It is one of the most intense and devastating outbreaks ever recorded. The outbreak of Acanthaster began in a very specific location in the Austral and Leeward Islands, then in 2006, the starfish colony spread to Tahiti and Moorea. Thanks to a dozen stations around the island of Moorea, scientists were able to make spatio-temporal observations of the dynamics of the infestation of coral populations. Thus, in a new study published in PLoS One, they described the spread of the coral reef invasion.

Ocean depths and lagoons alike

The starfish first settled in the deeper areas along the outer slopes of the reef, around 20 to 30 metres below the ocean surface. It then rose to a depth of approximately 6 metres, and even colonised certain parts of the lagoon. The damage was gradually observed: from 47% of living coral cover at one of the stations in 2006, for example, this rate dropped to 21% in 2007, 6% in 2008 and 2% in 2009: a disastrous state of affairs that disrupts the structure and functioning of all reef communities (including other coral-feeding species, such as butterflyfish, etc.).

The causes remain unclear – High rainfall is an indicator

What are the reasons behind outbreaks of Acanthaster planci? In Australia, where the pest is also rife, invasions occur after years with high rainfall. Rainfall leads to the excess release of nutrients from human activities and the proliferation of algae on which echinoderm larvae feed. In Polynesia, however, anthropic pressure seems too low and localised to explain such an outbreak of the starfish. The current lack of data on the subject means the phenomenon remains a mystery.

Since the causes of outbreaks remain unclear, there is limited ability to fight against Acanthaster planci in order to protect economic activities around the coral barrier, such as tourism and diving. Researchers are currently studying processes to “recruit” new corals, in other words to repopulate the reef and make it more resilient. Without a new widespread disturbance, a coral ecosystem would need 10 to 30 years to be restored to its original state.

One of the greatest mysteries of modern coral reefs is how they evolved from ancient corals. A critical knowledge gap has long existed in the record of coral evolution. This evolutionary gap occurs during a period of dramatic fluctuations in sea level and changes in the Earth’s climate between 1 and 2 million years ago. During this period many “old” corals went extinct, and the modern reef corals emerged. To fill this key temporal gap and understand the evolutionary and ecological transition to modern Caribbean reefs, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded a University of Miami (UM) project to study corals along the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. It is one of the few areas that contain a record of coral reefs from this period of climatic change: here.

Study finds starfish shed arms to protect against overheating: here.

A mystery illness is turning starfish to goo: here.

Massive outbreak killing California’s starfish, melting them into goo: here.