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Newly Discovered Owl Species Named for Mason Alumna

A career in animal research has kept Jolanda Luksenburg, PhD Environmental Science and Policy ’12, hard at work all over the globe, but it was a trip she made while vacationing that led to one of her most fascinating discoveries, and to having her name bestowed on a whole new species.

Luksenburg went on holiday in 2003 to Lombok, Indonesia, with her husband, George Sangster. A bird taxonomist, Sangster was collecting sound recordings of nightjars.

Mason alumna Jolanda Luksenburg with her husband, George Sangster. The two discovered a new species of owl while doing fieldwork in Lombok. Photo courtesy of Jolanda Luksenberg. [1]

Mason alumna Jolanda Luksenburg with her husband, George Sangster. The two discovered a new species of owl while doing fieldwork in Lombok, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Jolanda Luksenberg.

On their first night, camped in the foothills of a volcano (Mount Rinjani), the pair picked up vocalizations of an owl they’d never heard before. It sounded like a species found in Java and Bali, but when they played back the recording, a number of owls approached that looked nothing like that species. These new birds were smaller and resembled the Moluccan Scops Owl, which inhabits the islands east of Lombok. Their whistles, however, sounded different from what Luksenburg calls the “raven-like croak” of the Moluccan Scops.

“Now things got interesting,” Luksenburg recalls. “We thought we might have a different species, but we fully expected some taxonomist already had given a name to this population.”

This marked the beginning of a decade of study. The researchers first had to make additional recordings from different parts of the islands and conduct more fieldwork to determine if this was the only species of Scops Owl on Lombok. They compared specimens of the new owl with other relevant species in museums, which helped rule out the possibility of it being the same owl described by a German ornithologist in the 1970s. Finally, they compared DNA from the new owl to other species. When all the data was compiled, the new species was confirmed, and given the name Rinjani Scops Owl, or Otus jolandae, in honor of Luksenburg.

“Jolanda played a major role in the fieldwork that led to the discovery of the owl,” Sangster says. “I was very focused on finding nightjars, so initially I did not pay much attention to the owls. Jolanda urged me to have a look at them, and to make good sound recordings.”

Traipsing through the forests of Indonesia is a different, and drier, method of research for Luksenburg, since she conducts most of her work in the waters of Aruba. Her dissertation explored the diversity of whale and dolphin species there.

Two of the owls names for Jolanda Luksenburg. Photo courtesy of Jolanda Luksenburg. [2]

Two of the Rinjani Scops Owls named for Jolanda Luksenburg. Photo courtesy of Philippe Verbelen.

While only three species of these mammals had been previously documented for the island, Luksenburg’s research documented 16, one of which was the killer whale, which had been all but unknown in the region. Other research included using molecular identification to distinguish and categorize stranded whales, and exploring how fishing gear and propeller hits pose threats to marine life. Her work spotlighted concern for protection of these animals among the tourists and residents of Aruba.

In between trips to the Caribbean, Luksenburg travels home to Sweden, where her husband is a doctoral student. The couple has basically lived apart for the last six years, something Luksenburg admits has been tough. “Thankfully, we were both working on our PhDs,” she says, which “helped us understand each other’s passion, ambition, and reasons for pursuing this path.”

Luksenburg is currently trying to publish her dissertation as a series of scientific papers, and is looking into follow-up projects as she continues her research on marine mammals. Her work, she says, shows how much can be learned about Aruban marine life, and how much remains undiscovered.

“Although the area is a well-known tourist destination,” she says, “marine mammals in this region remain poorly known. More research is important, because the Caribbean is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.”

For more information on Otus jolandae, please visit www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0053712. [3]