May 25, 1999 Lawrence -- Fieldwork by a University of Kansas ornithologist continues to reveal the extent of biological diversity of the New World tropics -- even as deforestation poses a mounting threat to the survival of many species -- with the discovery of a new species of pygmy-owl.
In a cover story published in the April 21 issue of the "Auk," a leading ornithological journal, Mark Robbins, the KU Natural History Museum's collection manager for birds, and his co-author, Gary Stiles of the National University of Colombia in Bogota, name the new species Glaucidium nubicola, or Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl. The bird inhabits the Pacific slope of the Andes in Ecuador and Colombia, and with its discovery and the elevation of a previously identified subspecies to full species rank, Robbins and Stiles revise the taxonomy of the often overlooked and elusive group of pygmy-owls.
The Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl is the latest new discovery to result from Robbins' work in Ecuador. During the past decade, Robbins has described four new bird species to science. Because birds are perhaps the best known group of organisms, the discovery of a new species is a relatively rare event, with an average of only one new species described every year.
Robbins' and Stiles' work is based on analysis of the birds' vocalizations and on specimens accumulated since 1987. The Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl and the Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium costaricanum) had previously been thought to belong to the species Andean Pygmy-Owl, Glaucidium jardinii. Although all the New World's pygmy-owls have songs of hollow whistles or toots, the length of the notes and the intervals between notes provide clues to the species identifications that can be confirmed using genetic analysis and by observing subtle but consistent physical differences.
These little-studied owls -- which are about half the size of screech-owls -- live in low densities in tall, humid forests between about 4,600 and 6,500 feet above sea level on the Pacific slopes of the western Andes of Colombia and Ecuador. They are notoriously difficult to observe, and their survival is threatened because of the clearing of the forest and human encroachment during the last two decades.
"There has been relatively less encroachment on the forests of the Pacific slope of the northern Andes than elsewhere because of high rainfall," Robbins said. "But major roads are being built into once-inaccessible areas in western Colombia and northwestern Ecuador, denuding the habitats of these owls and many other endemic species in that region. Even ten years ago, when I was surveying the site where we discovered the Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl, loggers were rapidly felling trees. I'm sure that site has been completely cleared."
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