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Alimentary, My Dear Hoatzin!


Hoatzin by Crijnfotin, www.flickr.com/photos/16898659@N07

The Hoatzin, Opisthocomus hoatzin, is a taxonomical puzzle, the only member of the family Opisthocomidae. The genus and species name is derived from ancient Greek, meaning to wear long hair behind. The name Hoatzin is a native name for the bird, probably onomatopoeic for its harsh, grating hiss.

The Hoatzin is also unique in its ability to digest leaves via fermentation. This takes place in the crop—a swelling in the esophagus so large in Hoatzins that it displaces the flight muscles and keel of the sternum, making the Hoatzin a weak flier. The crop has a leathery bump on the bottom that helps the bird balance on branches. It’s nicknamed the “stinkbird” because of the manure-like odor caused by the fermentation process. This foul smell may have contributed to the Hoatzin’s survival, since few people are willing to eat them. They’re found in swamps, riverine forests, and mangroves in the Amazon Basin and the Orinoco delta in South America, habitat that is less vulnerable than forest interiors. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List places the Hoatzin as a species of Least Concern.

 

For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Laura Erickson, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-1114. email: lle24@cornell.edu

 
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