‘Supercomputing’ uncovers information about great gray owl

They spend more time close to people than once thought

Great gray owls, once thought to spend most of their time in the Alaskan wilderness far from people, actually spend much of their time in human-populated areas.

There’s a “magical, mystical belief” about owls spending their time in the wild, said Falk Huettmann, a professor of wildlife ecology at the Institute of Arctic Biology, but 100 years of public data show gray owls (Strix nebulosi) regularly appear alongside humans.

Huettmann led a study published in Scientific Reports using publicly available data to determine where great gray owls occur and spend their time in Alaska. “Alaska doesn’t have so much public bird information shared,” he said, so his team spent years compiled sighting data from a variety of sources, including the biodiversity data site GBIF.org, citizen science platforms like eBird and iNaturalist, birdwatching email lists and Federal Aviation Administration bird strike records. The researchers wanted to look at as many factors as they could to predict where the birds are found. Most wildlife computer models take into consideration about 10 predictors, Huettmann said. But his team wanted to be more holistic using 100 predictors, including factors like climate, land cover, socio-economics and elevation.

Thanks to industrial grant funding, his team was able to tap into supercomputing time to create a first and massive data model to determine great gray owl hot spots in Alaska. The findings were contrary to conventional local wisdom. Great gray owls appeared wherever humans were, including industrial areas, cities, roads and farms. Wilderness areas, it turned out, weren’t even very good places to find the owls. “If you want to find them consistently,” Huettmann said, “you would probably be better advised to search in a fragmented farming environment,” where roadkill is common and open landscapes make it easier for them to perch and to find food.

“This somewhat flips the classic understanding of great gray owls,” he said. “It’s not this remote wilderness species as such. It lives in the Anthropocene.” That matches what is known about the birds elsewhere in their range in the Lower 48, Europe and Asia. The team conducted some ground truthing to see if these hot spots truly were in the areas they found. Looking at data and evidence from other studies, they found about a 90% match between those findings and their model in confirmation.

Huettmann hopes the paper can help with conservation priorities for the owl and serve as a guide for researchers studying other wildlife.  “It’s a generic workflow that you can apply to any species,” he said.

Header Image: Great gray owl hot spots in Alaska overlap with human presence. Credit: Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service