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Orange-eyed owl reappears after 125 years

Published May 16th, 2021 3:08PM EDT
extinct owl
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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When a species disappears for a short while there can be many reasons why. Perhaps its habitat is shifting — either due to natural circumstances or human encroachment — or maybe its primary food source has also relocated, forcing them to follow. Sometimes animals disappear from an area because they go extinct, which is obviously a huge bummer, and when a species that was already hard to find in the wild, it can be hard to know if the absence of a species is due to extinction or some other factor.

The Bornean Rajah scops owl was already a rare sight when it was last seen in 1892, but as the decades passed with no new sightings of the bird it would have been hard for scientists to hold out hope that it still existed at all. If a species disappears for a decade it would be easy to assume the worst. When it remains unseen for 50 years? It might feel foolish to believe it is still around. So, when researchers spotted the owl in 2016 after over 125 years since the last confirmed sighting, it felt a whole lot like a miracle.

There were many things standing between scientists and confirming the existence or extinction of the Bornean Rajah scops owl. When it was discovered in 1892, the orange-eyed bird was a mystery, and very little had been learned about it by the time it disappeared. Nobody knew its normal habitat, population size, or even what the owl sounded like. There weren’t even any photographs of it. All researchers had to go on was its description, and its iconic orange eyes were the most striking of its features.

As Smithsonian reports, ecologist Andy Boyce wasn’t even trying to find the incredibly rare bird when he set up an observation project in Malaysia for his Ph.D. Boyce was capturing and releasing songbirds to gather data on bird evolution. He was contacted by a fellow scientist working nearby who told him that an odd owl had appeared. When Boyce arrived at the location he saw the bird’s orange eyes and knew what it was.

“If we didn’t document it right then and there, this bird could disappear again for who knows how long,” Boyce said. “It was a really rapid progression of emotion. There was nervousness and anticipation as I was trying to get there, hoping the bird would still be there. Just huge excitement, and a little bit of disbelief, when I first saw the bird and realized what it was. And then, immediately, a lot of anxiety again.”

The owl eventually flew off again, but the fact that it’s been spotted means that scientists and conservationists can begin working together to potentially boost its numbers and save it from extinction if it is indeed on the brink.