The Aegothelidae family is made up of 9 living species and one extinct species, all of which are owlet-nightjars belonging to the same genus Aegotheles. There has been a huge amount of debate regarding whether the family belongs to the order Apodiformes (swifts and hummingbirds) or the Caprimulgiformes (nightjars and allies). The issue remained unresolved as there was evidence to support both hypotheses. However, in the 1960s, studies on Aegothelidae skulls suggested it should form its own distinct order: the Aegotheliformes.
The New Calendonian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles savesi was previously placed as subspecies of A. cristatus in Australia, but its distinctiveness, which was already obvious morphologically, has now been genetically confirmed. A 2003 study places A. savesi at the base of the Aegothelidae phylogeny, suggesting this species was one of the first to diverge from other members of the genus, evolving in isolation on the island of New Caledonia.
The tree below shows the evolutionary relationships between this species and all other birds. The colours of the tree indicate EDGE scores with the red shades indicating the higher priority species; the bright red leaves correspond to the top 100 EDGE bird species. Further information on every species can be found by zooming in to its leaf on the tree.
Very little is known about this enigmatic species, but biologists can extrapolate from other species to predict how this bird behaves. Dr Jonathan Eckstrom, the researcher that made the most recent sighting in 1998, stated that the bird was foraging for insects at dusk. From studies on other species of Aegotheles it can be presumed that A. savesi is territorial and employs a sit and wait tactic to prey on small animals. Some biologists suggest that the large size and long legs have evolved for a more ground-dwelling existence.
Sightings have been made in humid forest and areas dominated by Melaleuca plants.
Little is known about the threats to this species. It is likely that invasive species such as rats and fire ants are the primary threat. Habitat loss and degradation, through logging, mining and forest fires, have probably also had an influence.
The last sighting was in the Reserve Speciale de Faune et de Flore de la Ni-Kouakoue, an area which receives little conservation management. By virtue of its remote location and difficult terrain, this region of forest remains relatively intact. Other forest sites in New Caledonia are comparatively well financed, but invasive species continue to spread.
Comprehensive surveys of suitable habitat need to be undertaken so population numbers can be established and occurrence sites protected. The search for the species could be extended to include local communities and forest workers. Research into the ecological needs of the species is required so that appropriate conservation measures, such as the control of introduced predators, can be implemented.
BirdLife International (2013) Species factsheet: Aegotheles savesi. Downloaded from www.birdlife.org on 13/03/2013.
Dumbacher, J. P., Pratt, T. K. and Fleischer, R. C. (2003) Phylogeny of the owlet-nightjars (Aves: Aegothelidae) based on mitochondrial DNA sequence. Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 29(3): 540–549
Olson, S. L., Balouet, C. and Fisher, C. T. (1987). The owlet-nightjar of New Caledonia, Aegotheles savesi, with comments on the systematics of the Aegothelidae. Le Gerfaut 77:341-352
Tobias, J. A. and Ekstrom, J. M. M. (2002). The New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles savesi rediscovered? Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club 122: 282-285
Text compiled by Michelle Harrison. Factchecked by Jonathan Ekstrom.