Likely hybrid of forest and spotted owlets found
Article Date: 2011-05-19 Source: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com
By Neha Madaan
Pune, Maharashtra, India - A possible hybrid of critically endangered forest owlet 'Athene blewitti' and spotted owlet 'Athene brama' has been discovered in the Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR), said a recently published research paper. Since the forest owlet is listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, the research team was unable to collect any kind of samples (feces, pellets, discarded feathers) or capture and sample any of the birds for molecular studies.
The study, based on visual observations, assumes significance after it was
declared that the forest owlet may soon be the state bird of Maharashtra. The
research was conducted by the Ela Foundation here, International Birding and
Research Centre (IBRCE), Israel, and the Sevadal Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Nagpur.
"Our studies are based on behaviour, plumage appearance, vocalisations and also
on evidence of mating of the suspected hybrid with a pure species of forest
owlet. We encourage detailed molecular studies by experts," said Satish Pande,
ornithologist and founder president of Ela Foundation. The research was
undertaken to estimate the population of the rare owlet and to find new
locations to further enhance understanding of the species' habitat requirements.
"In February 2004, we undertook transects in MTR and mapped all known and newly
discovered territories of forest and spotted owlets," Pande said.
During the study, which was published on April 26 this year, the researchers
became acquainted with the different color morphs and behavioral idiosyncrasies
of the two sympatric species. "This enabled us to discern that a particular area
bordering on forest and spotted owlet territories had owls with intermediate
plumages, vocalisations, and behaviors. The family that defended this territory
consisted of two adults and a recently fledged owlet. Since all our studies were
photographed and videotaped, we were able to compare the two Athene species with
this family, and concluded that it was a fertile hybrid of the two species,"
According to the researchers, the spotted owlet has a heavily spotted
crown, a darkish facial disc bordered by white around its sides; and curved
white eyebrows. Its ear coverts are white. The dorsal side is gray-brown with
scattered white spots. Its tail is short and has a conspicuous white-tip; the
white tail bars are narrow. The breast is creamy white with short gray to
brownish bars. In contrast, the forest owlet has a mostly white facial disc with
fine light brown to dark-brown barring. Its white facial disc is almost
invisible in the field and its face appears brown. The head is very sparsely
spotted and in many individuals it appears unspotted, as are the mantle and the
back. Interestingly, it has an obsolete hind-collar, thin white eyebrows, and
its flight feathers and tail feathers have broad white bars.
"We have discovered individuals which displayed a combination of the markings of
the two species and whose vocalisations were intermediate. This has led us to
believe that these are most probably hybrids of the forest and spotted owlets
that co-exist in the forests. As expected, the hybrid individuals also displayed
physical characteristics that were intermediate to the two species," Pande said.
The characteristic that alerted the researchers to the possibility of these
being hybrids was the tail wagging, which was lateral and horizontal. Professor
Reuven Yosef from the IBRCE, said, "It vocalised during the day (0500-1100 hrs)
and from afternoon until early night (1600-1900 hrs). These findings are similar
to that reported for hybrids between the barred and spotted owls that give calls
that are intermediate between the typical calls of the two species."Yosef added
that the possible hybrid, if indeed exists, can throw the conservation thinking
into a spin. The subject of how hybrids can affect 'pure' populations, or do we
conserve them, or accord equal conservation status to them is a dilemma that is
not easily handled.
"All the 11 home ranges we found were intimately in and around adivasi
villages or activities. Earlier studies suggest that anthropogenic activities
are detrimental to the habitat and forests owlets shift their sites in case of
disturbances. But not in our case. They followed cattle and collected insects
flushed at their feet, hunted in agricultural plots. We think that a serious
study of the species needs to be undertaken and decisions made after a real
understanding of their needs is acquired," said Yosef, who hopes to return to
India, to get appropriate permits and to do an in-depth study.
"Whether the individuals deduced as hybrids were actually hybrids can only be
verified with DNA fingerprinting - something that the authorities are reluctant
to allow. This can also be done without trapping the bird - by collecting a
dropped feather or a fresh pellet where the mucous is wet and can be swabbed for
tissue sampling," Yosef added. The observations strongly suggest that the
hybrids are fertile - the female was subsequently observed (and filmed) while
engaged in extra-pair copulation with male forest owlet. "The biological
implications of the discovery regarding conservation is of great interest in the
light of the fact that many a wild specie has been known to lose its identity
and legal protection, owing to genetic contamination, making its continued
conservation a problematic question. We shall not be surprised if the findings
are met with a raised eyebrow, but we encourage criticism and further studies,
because conservation is important and we shall be happy if our suspicions are
proved wrong," Pande added.
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