The Azores Islands are an important geographical region that is the most isolated archipelago of Macaronesia. This isolation is extremely useful in helping untangle the web of evolution and can lend a hand in showing the impact of humans on biodiversity of the islands’ ecosystem. In 2011 on São Miguel Island, the largest of the Portuguese islands, Dr. Juan Carlos Rando and Dr. Josep Antoni Alcover found the small bones of a bird in the Agua de Pau cave.

Dr. Rando of the University of La Laguna and Dr. Alcover of the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies in Mallorca recently identified the remains as an extinct species of owl. The owl was named Otus frutuosoi in honor of Gaspar Frutuoso, the famous Azorean histrorian from the 16th century. Analysis showed that the owl was closely related to the extinct scops owl of Europe. The scientists hypothesize that this owl was endemic to Sao Miguel Island.

Based on fossil measurements, Otus frutuosoi had longer legs and a wider body than its close relatives. This indicates that it was a ground dwelling bird. Additionally, wing analysis showed that the owl had shorter, wider wings. It is thought that O. frutuosoi’s capacity for flight was limited, supporting the idea that it made its life on the ground. The owl’s beak shape indicates that it was an insectivore.

Carbon dating of the bones showed that this particular specimen is from approximately 1,970 years ago. It is not clear what exactly led to the extinction of this species but humans are thought to have had some influence. Gathered data leads scientists to believe that the extinction of Otus frutuosoi occurred in the 15th century, which corresponds to when heavy human settlement of the islands began. Dr. Alcover gave his opinion on the matter, “Humans have a history of changing island ecosystems. When humans arrived on the island mice started to appear and laurisilva – a type of humid forest – was destroyed. This surely played a large part in the extinction of the São Miguel scops owl.”

Otus frutuosoi was described May 9, 2013 in Zootaxa journal.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.


Published On: July 3, 2013

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