Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Extinct Owls Of Madeira

An artist's impression of the Majorcan scops owl (left) and a size
comparison with a common European species (right; the left hand
bird is the European)
Owls are some of the most recognisable nocturnal birds of prey on Earth with their large wings, upright posture when roosting and large round eyes. It is likely that avians evolved the ability to hunt and feed at night to avoid being eaten by dinosaurs. However little fossil evidence of nocturnal birds has been found, especially in Europe.

Twenty years ago, a German researcher called Harald Pieper found a fossil on Majorca, an island in the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira. In-depth study only began last year when palaeontologists, led by Joseph Antoni Alcover from the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA) in the Balearic Islands, pronounced the remains from an unknown species of scops owl, a genus found worldwide with around 45 living members. They named the new member Otus mauli.

'It has long legs and wings slightly shorter than the continental European scops owl from which it derives,' said Alcover. 'It is likely that their extinction is linked to the arrival of humans and the fauna they brought with them.' Its situation is rather similar to that of the dodo. Both are island-based birds isolated from the mainland which became extinct around the 15th century, due to human colonisation and the parasites they brought with them.

Despite its very recent end, it is likely that the species evolved at least a few tens of thousands of years ago. Its similarity to another island species of scops owl from Porto Santo suggests that it has an ancient heritage.  As the Porto Santo species evolved before the end of the current warm phase of the ongoing Pleistocene/Holocene ice age when the island and mainland were one landmass. Their similarities, however, suggest that they were both isolated genetically, leading to the rise of this new species, Otus mauli.