Great Gray Owls in Yosemite National Park Believed to be a Unique Subspecies

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Date: September 23, 2010

Research on Raptor Population Shows Distinct Genetic Differences

Yosemite National Park is home to more than 400 species of animals, including 165 resident and migratory birds. The abundant diversity in wildlife is due to the park’s natural habitats and ecosystems that remain largely intact. Yosemite’s rich habitats range from thick wooded foothills to expanses of meadows and alpine terrain found in the park’s higher elevations.

Among the 167 species of resident and migratory birds, Yosemite National Park is home to approximately 150 great gray owls, which is estimated to be 65% of the great gray owl population in California. The great gray owl is a California State Endangered Species and is a large-bodied raptor that is also found in Asia and Europe. Great gray owl research in Yosemite National Park has become a top priority for scientists because new evidence shows that the Sierra Nevada is home to a genetically distinct population of great gray owls, compared to other great gray owls found in North America, Asia, and Europe. Prior scientific research on great gray owls shows that only two other subspecies have been recognized: Strix nebulosa nebulosa in North America and Strix nebulosa lapponica in Europe and Asia.

Based on recent genetic research on great gray owls in the Sierra Nevada area, and specifically in Yosemite National Park, a new subspecies has been named: Strix nebulosa yosemitensis. The recent scientific research has shown that the great gray owls found in and around Yosemite National Park are genetically distinct from other populations of great gray owls.

In addition to genetic differences, scientists have also observed behavioral differences in the Yosemite subspecies of great gray owls. These include differences in migration patterns, prey preference, and nest site selection. Each of these characteristics show that the Sierra Nevada population of great gray owls has been isolated from other populations for an extensive period of time.

“Future research in Yosemite National Park will allow us to identify specific characteristics of the great gray owls in the park, and to further study their habitat. National parks like Yosemite, that provide nearly intact ecosystems, are critically important to both identify new species of plants and animals and to provide a laboratory in which to conduct scientific study,” stated Chief of Resources Management and Science Niki Nicholas.

Future research on the great gray owl in Yosemite would help develop a genetic technique to identify individual owls from their molted feathers. This non-invasive research method would allow scientists to study survival rates, reproduction patterns, and other important information through the DNA found in the collected feathers. Additionally, this research method would mitigate negative impacts on the sensitive great gray owl population in the park.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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