Ramphastidae – Aracari, Toucans & Toucanets

Fiery-billed Aracari Pteroglossus frantzii ©David Shackleford Website

The Ramphastidae or Toucans are members of a family of near passerine birds from the Neotropics. The Ramphastidae family is most closely related to the American barbets. They are brightly marked and have large, often colourful bills. The family includes five genera and over forty different species.

Toucans range in size from the Lettered Aracari at 130g and 29cm to the Toco Toucan at 680g and 63cm. Their bodies are short (of comparable size to a crow’s) and compact. The tail is rounded and varies in length, from half the length to the whole length of the body. The neck is short and thick. The wings are small, as they are forest-dwelling birds who only need to travel short distances, and are often of about the same span as the bill-tip-to-tail-tip measurements of the bird.

Their legs are strong and rather short. Their toes are arranged in pairs with the first and fourth toes turned backward. The majority of toucans do not show any sexual dimorphism in their coloration, the genus Selenidera being the most notable exception to this rule (hence their common name, ‘dichromatic toucanets’). However, the bills of female toucans are usually shorter, deeper and sometimes straighter, giving more of a ‘blocky’ impression compared to male bills. The feathers in the genus containing the largest toucans are generally black, with touches of white, yellow, and scarlet. The underparts of the araçaris (smaller toucans) are yellow, crossed by one or more black or red bands. The toucanets have mostly green plumage with blue markings.

The colourful and large bill, which in some large species measures more than half the length of the body, is the hallmark of toucans. Despite its size, the toucan’s bill is very light, being composed of bone struts filled with spongy tissue of keratin between them. The bill has forward-facing serrations resembling teeth, which historically led naturalists to believe that toucans captured fish and were primarily carnivorous; today it is known that they eat mostly fruit. Researchers have discovered that the large bill of the toucan is a highly efficient thermoregulation system, though its size may still be advantageous in other ways. It does aid in their feeding behaviour (as they sit in one spot and reach for all fruit in range, thereby reducing energy expenditure), and it has also been theorised that the bill may intimidate smaller birds, so that the toucan may plunder nests undisturbed. Also, the beak allows the bird to reach deep into tree-holes to access food unavailable to other birds, and also to ransack suspended nests built by smaller birds. However, as there is no sexual dimorphism in coloration it is unlikely to be a sexual signal.

A toucan’s tongue is long (up to 14cm or 15cm), narrow, grey, and singularly frayed on each side, adding to its sensitivity as an organ of taste.

A structural complex probably unique to toucans involves the modification of several tail vertebrae. The rear three vertebrae are fused and attached to the spine by a ball and socket joint. Because of this, toucans may snap their tail forward until it touches the head. This is the posture in which they sleep, often appearing simply as a ball of feathers, with the tip of the tail sticking out over the head.

Toucans are primarily frugivorous (fruit eating), but are opportunistically omnivorous and will take prey such as insects and small lizards. Captive toucans have been reported to hunt insects actively in their cages, and it is possible to keep toucans on an insect-only diet. They also plunder nests of smaller birds, taking eggs and nestlings.This probably provides a crucial addition of protein to their diet. Certainly, apart from being systematically predatory as well as frugivorous, like many omnivorous birds, they particularly prefer animal food for feeding their chicks. However, in their range, toucans are the dominant frugivores, and as such, play an extremely important ecological role as vectors for seed dispersal of fruiting trees.

There are, according to the IOC, 43 species of Toucans and Toucanets & Aracaris in the family Ramphastidae; they are:

Wagler’s Toucanet Aulacorhynchus wagleri
Emerald Toucanet Aulacorhynchus prasinus
Blue-throated Toucanet Aulacorhynchus caeruleogularis
White-throated Toucanet Aulacorhynchus albivitta
Black-throated Toucanet Aulacorhynchus atrogularis
Groove-billed Toucanet Aulacorhynchus sulcatus
Chestnut-tipped Toucanet Aulacorhynchus derbianus
Tepui Toucanet Aulacorhynchus whitelianus
Crimson-rumped Toucanet Aulacorhynchus haematopygus
Yellow-browed Toucanet Aulacorhynchus huallagae
Blue-banded Toucanet Aulacorhynchus coeruleicinctis

Green Aracari Pteroglossus viridis
Lettered Aracari Pteroglossus inscriptus
Red-necked Aracari Pteroglossus bitorquatus
Ivory-billed Aracari Pteroglossus azara
Brown-mandibled Aracari Pteroglossus mariae
Black-necked Aracari Pteroglossus aracari
Chestnut-eared Aracari Pteroglossus castanotis
Many-banded Aracari Pteroglossus pluricinctus
Collared Aracari Pteroglossus torquatus
Stripe-billed Aracari Pteroglossus sanguineus
Pale-mandibled Aracari Pteroglossus erythropygius
Fiery-billed Aracari Pteroglossus frantzii
Curl-crested Aracari Pteroglossus beauharnaesii
Saffron Toucanet Pteroglossus bailloni

Yellow-eared Toucanet Selenidera spectabilis
Guianan Toucanet Selenidera piperivora
Golden-collared Toucanet Selenidera reinwardtii
Tawny-tufted Toucanet Selenidera nattereri
Gould’s Toucanet Selenidera gouldii
Spot-billed Toucanet Selenidera maculirostris

Grey-breasted Mountain Toucan Andigena hypoglauca
Plate-billed Mountain Toucan Andigena laminirostris
Hooded Mountain Toucan Andigena cucullata
Black-billed Mountain Toucan Andigena nigrirostris

Green-billed Toucan Ramphastos dicolorus
Channel-billed Toucan Ramphastos vitellinus
Citron-throated Toucan Ramphastos citreolaemus
Choco Toucan Ramphastos brevis
Keel-billed Toucan Ramphastos sulfuratus
Toco Toucan Ramphastos toco
White-throated Toucan Ramphastos tucanus
Yellow-throated Toucan Ramphastos ambiguus

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 43

Useful Reading
  • Toucans, Barbets and Honeyguides

    Toucans, Barbets and Honeyguides by Lester Short and Jennifer Horne, Illustrated by Albert Earl Gilbert ? Part of the Bird Families of the World series published by Oxford University Press http://www.oup.com
    See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 0198546661 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Tucanos das Am?ricas [Toucans of the Americas]

    by Herculano Alvarenga published by M.Pontual 2004 [In Portuguese and English] ISBN: 8598886017 Buy this book from NHBS.com
Photographers & Artists
  • Toucan Barbet Semnornis ramphastinus

    BirdLife species account…

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