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Desert Tawny Owl a Victim of Mistaken Identity

Feb 03, 2015 04:10 PM EST

The desert tawny owl has been a victim of mistaken identity for over a century, and researchers are now just beginning to shed light onto this new species.

Reported in the journal Zootaxa, the golden-eyed desert tawny owl, or Strix hadorami, has long been confused with the Hume's owl (Strix butleri). The mistake began in 1878, when researchers Allan Hume and Henry Tristram both collected owl specimens of what came to be known as Hume's owl.

"Hume had named his bird, and Tristram thought [his owl] was the same thing," Guy Kirwan, co-author of the new report, told Live Science.

It wasn't until Kirwan and his colleagues examined the plumage and body shape of owl specimens from museums around the world that scientists began to realize their slip-up. It turns out that there are actually two species of Hume's owls.

Researchers reached this conclusion after analyzing the DNA of the owl specimens, finding it was about 10 percent different from that of the Hume's owl.

"We reinvestigated it using all techniques available to us, and realized - especially based on the fact that there were massive genetic differences between Hume's type and specimens from elsewhere - that it was pretty obvious that there were two species involved," Kirwan said.

Adding more confusion to the chaos, another group of ornithologists recently named another new species of owl in the Middle East, which they named Strix omanensis (after Oman, the country in which it was found). This team reported in the journal Dutch Birding that the owl looked similar to S. butleri, but had a different vocalization. In fact, they just renamed Hume's owl.

"Everyone now accepts that Hume's owl contains two species," Kirwan added. "We believe that we have now named the right new species."

The desert tawny owl can be identified by the light brown feathers on its back and sand-colored feathers on its underside. The bird measures about 12 inches long and weighs a mere 0.5 pounds. It typically lives in desert canyons, nests and crevices in Middle Eastern areas such as Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Now, after over a century of waiting, this golden-eyed creature is finally getting its due.

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