Errol Abada Gatumbato

Unveiling new species of Philippine hawk owls


The writer with the principal author of a publication that described the two new species of owls in the Philippines, Dr. Pamela Rasmussen of the Michigan State University. Bob Natural photo*

The preparation for the unveiling of two new species and one subspecies of Philippine hawk owls in Cebu last Friday, August 17, took much of my time while tropical monsoon rain or “habagat” was lashing Metro Manila and several parts of Luzon during the first week of this month.  Since I am currently the Vice President and Managing Director of the Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Inc., which was tasked to host the event with the Philippines Business for Social Progress-Visayas, I was designated to sign and send out some invitations for the occasion. I was expecting the unveiling of new species would be an interesting affair, but only to realize that it was even more a dramatic and somehow an emotional ceremony, especially when the curtain covering the new species was finally unveiled.  The affair in Cebu last Friday was quite a different one compared with several announcements of new species I had attended before, since this event was held in the place where one of the species is known to exist.

Two Filipino Biologists in the Research

The PBCFI hosted the unveiling because two of its senior biologists, Lisa Marie Paguntalan and Godfrey Jakosalem, both are holding master’s degree on wildlife, were the only Filipinos involved in the

Wildlife Biologist Lisa Marie Paguntalan, one of the two Filipinos in the study team. Photo from the Facebook profile of Paguntalan*

investigation that finally distinguished the Cebu hawk owl (Ninox rumseyi) and the Camiguin hawk owl (Ninox leventisi) as two different new species of Philippine hawk owls and are endemic only in Cebu and Camiguin, respectively.  Another new subspecies of hawk owl (Ninox spilonota fisheri) from Tablas Island has been uncovered in the study. The principal investigator of these discoveries, Dr. Pamela Rasmussen of Michigan State University, was the guest of honor in the unveiling, where she also presented the highlights of their findings. Other collaborators in this research included Desmond Allen, Nigel James Collar, Robert Hutchinson, Bram Demeulemeester, Robert Kennedy and Frank Lambert. The full report of the investigation is published in the current issue of Forktail, the Journal of Asian Ornithology with a title “Vocal Divergence and New Species in the Philippine Hawk Owl Ninox philippensis Complex”. The authors of this publication represent different organizations, namely, Birdlife International, Oriental Bird Club, Birdtour Asia, and of course the MSU and PBCFI. The National Geographic also provided additional support.

The announcement of the discovery of these new species is already all over the world with numerous postings in the internet by national and international media as well as in websites of various scientific and

Godfrey Jakosalem, also a wildlife biologist and the other Filipino in the study team. Photo from the Facebook profile of Jakosalem*

nongovernment organizations.  The unveiling of new owls was also simultaneously held in the US hosted by MSU and in United Kingdom by Oriental Bird Club and BirdLife International, coinciding the opening of the 2012 British Birdfair.

Seven hawk owl species and one subspecies

During the unveiling ceremony, Rasmussen claimed that based on morphology particularly vocalizations, the Philippine hawk owl requires treatment as seven allopatric species and at least one additional subspecies. She said, “More than 15 years ago, we realized that new subspecies of Ninox hawk owls existed in the Philippines”.  It was only last year when the group of Rasmussen gathered new recordings confirming the existence of two new species and one subspecies of hawk owls in the country.  “Vocalizations differ significantly between all seven species, the limits of which are incongruent with all previous taxonomies”, said Rasmussen, who is the assistant professor of zoology and assistant curator of mammalogy and ornithology at the museum of MSU. With this development, Rasmussen’s group recommended the treatment of the different hawk owl species in the Philippines as Luzon hawk owl (N. philippensis), Mindanao hawk owl (N. spilocephala), Mindoro hawk owl (N. mindorensis), Sulu hawk owl (Ninox reyi), Romblon hawk owl (N. spilonota), Camiguin hawk owl (new species), and Cebu hawk owl (new species).

William Oliver, one of the pioneers in developing species conservation programme in the Philippines. Photo from the Facebook profile of Oliver*

10 endemic owls in the Philippines

According to William Oliver, who orchestrated the development of the Philippine Owls Conservation Programme and a PBCFI trustee, the event last Friday also marked the publication of the second of two major revisions of the taxonomic classifications of the two widely distributed and highly variable species of Philippine owls that are all endemic in the country – the medium-sized Philippine scops owl (Otus megalotis) and the diminutive Philippine hawk owl (Ninox philippensis). Oliver’s statement is in reference to the 2011 findings of Filipino Ornithologist, Dr. Hector Miranda Jr., which similarly elevated all three former races of the Philippine scops owl to full species status – the Luzon lowland scops owl (Otus megalotis), the Visayan scops owl (Otus nigrorum) and the Mindanao lowland scops-owl (Otus everetti). This finding was contained in a publication entitled “Phylogeny and taxonomic review of Philippine lowland scops owls (Strigiformes)” at Wilson Journal of Ornithology in September 2011.

Advancing Biodiversity Conservation

Oliver added, “Needless to say, these two key papers not only profoundly influence current understanding of Philippine owl diversity

Photo courtesy of Godfrey Jakosalem*

and endemism, but will also inevitably – perhaps quite drastically – expose the far larger number of seriously threatened endemic owls than previously supposed”.  None of these owl species, however, are included in the international and national listings of threatened and protected species despite the fact that several highly distinct forms were already known to be severely threatened throughout their limited ranges, Oliver further claimed. He added there is a need to evaluate the conservation status of these species since they may be categorized as threatened under the List of Threatened Species of the IUCN World Conservation Union.

Lawyer Joseph Ace Durano, another PBCFI trustee and former tourism secretary , encouraged his fellow Cebuanos to capitalize the presence of another endemic species in advancing forest protection and habitat restoration in Cebu, that is heavily affected by deforestation. Assistant Director Nelson Devanadera of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau said these recent discoveries further attest the importance of the country in global biodiversity and assured the support of the PAWB in biological researches as basis in coming out with appropriate and effective conservation measures.  Based on the study of Jakosalem, there are only about 200 pairs of Cebu hawk owls left in the remaining forest patches in Cebu.


August 20, 2012 - Posted by | Biodiversity Conservation, Conservation Events, Conservation Initiatives, Forest Ecosystem, Species Conservation

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