Desert owls get more complicated

There won't be time for the Israelis to redesign their postage stamps, but this 'Hume's Owl' is now a new species. Photo: Penarc (commons.wikimedia.org).
There won't be time for the Israelis to redesign their postage stamps, but this 'Hume's Owl' is now a new species. Photo: Penarc (commons.wikimedia.org).
A re-examination of the very first specimen of Hume's Tawny Owl has revealed that it is probably a different species from all other known specimens.

Examining the type specimen of Hume's Owl Strix butleri, a study has found that all known specimens except the type specimen – that is the first specimen from which the species was named – differ enough from the type to be assigned to be declared a new species.

However, since Omani Owl was announced as a new Western Palearctic species in October 2013, it has since become apparent that taxonomists may have had their names and species in a muddle. The somewhat unorthodox method of description of this new species of owl from Oman – S omanensis – which was named from solely from photographs and vocalisations rather than a specimen, has resulted in a mass of taxonomic complication.

In essence, the researchers consider there to be some morphological similarities between 'Omani Owl' and the type specimen of Hume's Owl, leading them to believe them to be possibly the same species. No one knows  where the type specimen was collected, but suspicions point to Arabia, again circumstantially supporting the idea that the two are the same.

However, all the other known specimens of 'Hume's Tawny Owl' (as the 'species' has been known) differ from this original specimen, and are what most reference books and field guides refer to as the species. As the name given to the type specimen takes priority under taxonomic rules, the other specimens must be renamed, and this is what the authors propose. 

Therefore, the resulting paper tentatively describes the existing specimens of Hume's Owl as a new species, and the type specimen remains as S butleri, with the possibility that 'Omani Owl' S omanensis is synonymous with it. The authors  propose the scientific name S hadorami for the Desert Tawny Owl, the new species, after Israeli ornithologist Hadoram Shirihai, who in 1985 first noticed that the type specimen was different to the others.

Read more in the February issue of Birdwatch, on sale this week Thursday 29 January.
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