- 49 species in the Neotropics
- DR personal total: 10 species 20%), 1 photo
is something very special about the forest floor in primeval jungles.
It is dark, often damp, and mysterious. In the Neotropics it is the
home of jaguars, tapirs, ground-cuckoos, and antpittas. I love standing
alone in the gloom, hoping to see any of these inhabitants. They are
difficult to see, but they are central to a forest experience.
Antpittas have long been among the most sought-after of Neotropical birds, and among the most 'hopeless' to find was Giant Antpitta
(left; nice photo by Jack Siler). Yes, one could sometimes tape in an
antpitta, but things have changed in recent years. There are now spots
in Ecuador, for example, where antpittas — even Giant Antpitta, as Jack
Siler discovered — can be enticed to feed on earthworms offered by
were once considered part of the huge Antbird family [Thamnophilidae];
indeed, the groups remained merged through the 20th century. All these
birds are found only in the Neotropics. By the time that the Handbook of the Birds of the World
series reached the suboscines, there was enough published evidence to
split the unique "ground-antbirds" — the antpittas and the antthrushes
— from the rest of the antbirds, and the "ground-antbirds" appeared
together in HBW as a new family, the Formicariidae (Krabbe &
Schulenberg 2003). Those authors, however, were already citing new
genetic work that would lead to a quick break-up of the
genetic work (e.g., Irestedt et al. 2002, Chesser 2004b, and others)
showed that there were three distinct lineages in the "Formicariidae."
The South American and North American checklist committees have handled
this by restricting Formicariidae to just two genera of antthrushes [Formicarius, Chamaeza]; creating the family Grallariidae for all antpittas except the genus Pittasoma; and assigned the two species of Pittasoma
antpitta to the Gnateaters [Rhinocryptidae; a bit more on that below].
Thus our group here — Antpittas, family Grallariidae — is composed of
49 species in four genera. The very large antpittas — such as Giant
Antpitta shown above — are in the genus Grallaria. The rest are smaller antpittas, and many are more prone to perches about ground level, including Streak-chested Antpitta of Central America and northern South America (right, in a nice photo by Greg Lasley). It is a Hylopezus antpitta, and together with the Myrmothera antpittas are the mid-sized birds in the new family.
The largest genus in the family is Grallaria, with 31 species. These range from mid-sized birds at high elevations, such as Tawny Antpitta
(left; a photo taken in elfin forest at 4000m [13,000']) to the very
large antpittas of the lowlands. Among them are some of the rarest
Neotropical birds, and some only recently discovered. Cundinamarca
Antpitta G. kaestneri was discovered by Peter Kaestner in Colombia in the 1980s, and Bob Ridgely discovered the spectacular Jocotoco Antpitta G. ridgelyi
in southern Ecuador in the '90s. Both birds were initially recognized
as something different by voice; both are now considered endangered
species with very small ranges.
All antpittas have
comparatively dull-colored plumages, although some combinations of
rufous, black, and gray can be very attractive. All are predominately
terrestrial birds, and camouflage is important to them. Instead,
vocalizations have largely taken over the role in signaling functions.
"Their exotic, ventriloquial, loud, and often easily imitated whistled
songs are so low-pitched that they travel along the ground for
considerable distances" (Krabbe & Schulenberg 2003). The majority
of territorial disputes are settled vocally, and pair bonds are
emphasized by voice. In the humid lowlands, most vocalizations are
given at dawn or dusk, but high elevation species, like Tawny Antpitta,
may sing throughout the day.
typically feed alone, although pairs are typically in touch vocally.
They eat a wide variety of prey, from earthworms and other terrestrial
invertebrates to frogs and, sometimes, fruit. Many species (maybe all)
bob their heads or flick their tails.
A final thought about two species of Pittasoma antpittas [Black-crowned Antpitta P. michleri, Rufous-crowned Antpitta P. rufopileatum]. These are huge ground birds that differ from Grallaria antpittas in plumage pattern (more striking, less dull) and sternal structure, and are genetically closest to the Conopophaga
gnateaters. Accordingly, the AOU and SACC committees have assigned them
to the Gnateater family [Rhinocryptidae]. This seems like only a
temporary solution to me — the two Pittasoma antpittas are huge compared to the tiny gnateaters, and they don't behave like gnateaters. They may deserve their own family.
Photos: Jack Siler photographed the Giant Antpitta Grallaria excelsa in the Mindo region of Ecuador in Sep 2008. Greg Lasley photographed the Streak-chested Antpitta Hylopezus perspicillatus at Braulio Carillo National Park, Costa Rica, in Nov 1991. The Tawny Antpitta Grallaria quitensis was at Papallacta Pass, Ecuador, in April 1992. Top
two photos © Jack Siler and © Greg W. Lasley, respectively,
used with permission; all rights reserved. The other is © Don
Bibliographic note: There
is no "family book" per se, but a fine introduction to this family,
with some great photos, is in Krabbe & Schulenberg (2003), although
at that time the antpittas were lumped with antthrushes. The authors
discuss all the evidence then available (e.g., Irestedt et al. 2002)
and anticipate the results of others (e.g., Chesser 2004). Thus the
overview on Antpittas is quite current there, despite the now-discarded
merger with antthrushes.
Chesser, R.T. 2004. Molecular systematics of New World suboscine birds. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 32: 11-24.
M., J. Fjeldså, U.S. Johansson, and P.G.P. Ericson. 2002.
Systematic relationships and biogeography of the tracheophone
suboscines (Aves: Passeriformes). Molec. Phylog. Evol. 23: 499-512.
Krabbe, N.K., and T.S. Schulenberg, T.S. 2003. Family Formicariidae (Ground-Antbirds), pp. 682 –731 in
Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A.
Christie, eds). Vol. 8. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.