Long-tufted screech owl
Megascops sanctaecatarinae - Long-tufted Screech Owl.JPG
Long-tufted screech owl at Urupema, Santa Catarina (state), Brazil
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Strigiformes
Family: Strigidae
Genus: Megascops
M. sanctaecatarinae
Binomial name
Megascops sanctaecatarinae

(Salvin, 1897)
Ephialtes argentina Schlegel, 1862 ((disputed name))
Otus atricapillus argentinus Hekstra, 1982 ((disputed name))
Otus choliba maximus Sztolcman, 1926
Otus choliba pintoi Kelso, 1936 ((disputed name))

The long-tufted screech owl (Megascops sanctaecatarinae) is a species of owl in the family Strigidae.

It is found in Argentina and Brazil. A recent revision of its distribution also includes Uruguay (consequently excluded from the distribution of M. atricapilla).

Scientific name and conflicting name

The long-tufted screech owl was described as Scops sanctae-catarinae by Osbert Salvin in 1897. Robert Ridgway had previously described a type of S. brasilianus from the “St. Catherine’s” range of southern Brazil. Salvin, however, in describing sanctaecatarinae, made no reference to Ridgway’s early description.

The first author to recognize its validity was Richard Bowdler Sharpe, and, initially, this form was considered distinct from brasilianus (=choliba) as well as atricapilla, and the name was also employed in Dubois, who listed it as a “variation” of brasilianus. Later authors, including Cory and Peters placed it as a synonym of atricapillus. The opinion had also prevailed, by this time, that Otus should replace Scops as the genus name (though it is also currently recognized in Megascops).

This treatment was largely retained for several decades, with some exceptions, including Kelso and Olrog. Gerrit Hekstra revived recognition of sanctaecatarinae (14.9), listing it separately from atricapillus, (14.7), but as a subspecies, O. a. sanctaecatarinae and listing the name Otus choliba maximus (Sztolcman, 1926) as a synonym. Hekstra’s numerated list corresponded to the descriptions of type specimens he had published the same year in his thesis, “A Revision of the American Screech Owls”. In this thesis, and not in his published paper, Hekstra explicitly suppressed the scientific names he cited – that use of them was not to be construed as relevant to nomenclatural rules. The distribution of sanctaecatarinae included the states and provinces of São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina (Brazil), and Misiones (Argentina). Further revision determined that sanctaecatarinae represented a distinct species of its own, and its distribution, including and in relation to that of atricapilla, was also revised, incorporating Uruguay, (which was consequently excluded from the distribution of atricapilla). This revision has recently prevailed, and almost all references to the family from the past 25 years, including references to these two species, reflect it.

The revision of the long-tufted screech owl’s distribution has brought attention to references relating to a name which had been published 43 years prior to sanctaecatarinae. Martin Heinrich Karl Lichtenstein published a list of type specimens in the Berlin Museum, to which some new names were introduced, but it was simply a list, and all the names therein lacked descriptions. One of these nomen nudum was based upon a screech-owl taken by the collector Sello near the vicinity of Montevideo, Uruguay – Ephialtes argentina. Hermann Schlegel later published a description of this same type, but the description was done in a manner that did not allow for clarity as to whether or not he felt that argentina was a valid species (one recognized for a legitimate taxon). The description was provided as a footnote, not as a synonym, for his entry for Scops brasiliensis. Schlegel did not see how this specimen differed from brasiliensis, and also suggested that it might be compared to Ephialtes Watsonii (another name which was not validly adopted in his review): “…[n]e se distinguishe Sc. brasiliensis que par une taille un peu plus forte et par ses teintes en general un peu plus claires. Cet oiseau a ete observe daus les environs de Montevideo d’ou M. Sello en a fait parvenir deux individus femelles au Musee de Berlin. Quatrieme remige egalanta a peu pres la cinquieme. Distribution des teintes en tout point semblable a celle du brasiliensis. Il s’agit de savoir si cet oiseau est identique avec l’Ephialtes Watsonii de Cassin. Aile 7 pouces 3 lignes. Pointe d’aile 18 lignes. Queue 3 pouces 9 lignes. Tarse 16 lignes. Doigt du milieu 11 lignes. Aigrettes 15 lignes. Doigts nus.” That Schlegel did not place argentina in Scops, merely invoking its original genus name, offers the most compelling argument in determining that he did not validly introduce it.

George Robert Gray was the first author to validly use Lichtenstein’s name, combining it as entry 493 in the genus Scops of his own list (S. (Megascops) argentinus). However, Gray did not include a description, but cited a vague reference to “Watsonii, p.?, Schlegel.” Johann Palacky also validly used argentinus, following Gray’s treatment. With exception to these two works, most authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries took heed to Schlegel’s assessment, placing the name as a synonym of brasilianus (variably spelled), or of choliba.

Hekstra was the first author after Dubois to make reference to argentina, where he reintroduced it as a valid subspecies Otus atricapillus argentinus. Not consulting Nomenclator, he assumed that the description had been published therein and wrongly cited Lichtenstein as the authority of the name. In his corresponding thesis, Hekstra described argentinus (14.8), the first such description of the type since Schlegel. He also placed the form Otus choliba pintoi (Kelso, 1936) as a synonym of it. This treatment was referenced in Claus Koenig and Roberto Juan Straneck’s description of Otus hoyi and in Howard and Moore, where both names were validly used. Holt et al., Dickinson and Weick placed argentinus in the synonymy of atricapilla (variably spelled), the latter author further invoking “Lichtenstein, 1854” as the authority, and also providing wing chord measurements of the type, from Hekstra’s description.

The name argentina, if it represents the same taxon as sanctaecatarinae, would take priority over that name, but no author has formally published a revised synonymy. Article 11.5 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (fourth ed., 1999) requires that a “name must be used as valid for a taxon when proposed,…” This provision would not allow for recognition of Schlegel as the authority of the name; however, an exclusionary clause 11.5.1 states that a “name proposed conditionally for a taxon before 1961 is not to be excluded on that account alone.” While this wording, particularly “on that account alone,” seems ambiguous and allows for further argument, Schlegel did describe argentina in a way that conforms to the Code’s definition of “conditional” (“the proposal of a name or a type fixation: one made with stated reservations”), and further, two authors had validly used the name before Salvin described sanctae-catarinae, and its placement in synonymy by numerous others suggests that it had been treated as a valid name.

The possibility that argentina was not made valid in Schlegel also allows for consideration of the argument that the name became available in Hekstra’s published report. While Hekstra had made it explicit in his complimentary thesis that names he employed in it were not to be considered with regards to “nomenclatural purposes,” a provision of the Code would, if Schlegel is not recognized as the authority, transfer authority to him. Article 13.1.2 of the Code, with its “Requirements” for names published after 1930, mandates that such names “be accompanied by a bibliographic reference to such a published statement, even if the statement is contained in a work published before 1758, or in one that is not consistently binomial, or in one that has been suppressed by the Commission.” Under this provision, Hekstra, numerating reference in his formal published report to the description in his thesis, would be construed as the authority. In this case, argentina would be available, but only as a synonym of sanctaecatarinae, including maximus (Sztolcman) and pintoi (Kelso).