a web page by Don Roberson
SAPAYOA Sapayoidae
  • 1 species in the Neotropics
  • DR personal total: 1 species (100%), 0 photos

In tropical lowland forests from Panama to northwest Ecuador lives an American enigma. Its formal name is Sapayoa aenigma; even this means "enigma" in Latin. It is an inconspicuous, dull-colored bird of the forest understory where it is rare to uncommon. The bird is now known as Sapayoa (left; a remarkable shot by Markus Lagerqvist).

It used to be called "Broad-billed Manakin" and was compared to an overgrown female manakin. One would never guess from its plumage that its closest relatives are the gaudy and colorful broadbills of tropical Asia and Africa. Its true relationships have unfolded with the use of molecular evidence. Lanyon (1985) and Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) were the first to publish evidence that Sapayoa was related to Old World suboscines, and may be the only relict of this ancient lineage remaining in the New World. Prum (1993) studied the phylogeny and biogeography of the asities and broadbills and presented evidence that the asities were embedded among various sets of broadbills.

The full story was not sorted out until Moyle et al. (2006) provided the necessary new research to show the relationship among the (mostly) Old World broadbills. They showed that there were two major clades: (1) a grouping of the Calyptomenna broadbills of Asia (these are the green broadbills) and the Smithornis broadbills of Africa (these are the lowland forest broadbills in Africa), and (2) a grouping of the remaining Asian broadbills (5 genera) plus Grauer's Broadbill Pseudocalyptomena graueri (a montane species which is an Albertine Rift endemic), plus Asities in Madagascar and Sapayoa of the New World (right is Guy Tudor's painting from Ridgely & Tudor 1994).

But what to do with this new evidence? The Broadbills as a traditional family are only monophyletic if one considers Asities and Sapayoa to be broadbills. Both the AOU and the SACC have waffled on their approach to the conundrum, and have variously placed Sapayoa in "Incertae Sedis" [Latin for "don't know what the hell it is"], or as a separate family, or lumped it with all broadbills and asities.

The evidence and timing presented by Moyle et al. (2006) suggested that broadbill ancestors arose perhaps 70 million years ago and for some time (perhaps for 10 million years) evolved on what is now India when it was still a huge isolated landmass in the Indian Ocean. When India first crashed into the Eurasian continent in the Paleocene, broadbills spread east (to southeast Asia) and west (to Africa) and in that very warm period, likely north as well. As climate cooled, presumably many species became extinct. Broadbills split into two main branches about 55 million years ago. One of those branches included the Eurylaimid Broadbills, the Sapayoa in the New World, and Asities. Sapayoa became isolated in the New World tropics about 52 million years ago (Moyle et al. 2006). One can debate the accuracy of the dating estimates, but, in short, Sapayoa shares a common ancestor with all broadbills and the asities of Madagascar. One way to look at the evidence is to lump all of them in one huge broadbill assemblage. Another way of handling the exact same evidence is to create four families: the Calyptomenid Broadbills, the Eurylaimid Broadbills, the Asities, and the Sapayoa. To retain Asities or Sapayoa as a family, one must make all those splits.

Making the four-way split, and retaining Sapayoa as a family, is consistent with the way the South American Checklist Committee (and this web site) handled a similar problem with the barbet/toucan assemblage. They either had to be one huge family (including toucans), or five separate families. SACC made the latter choice, and I very much approve. I handle the broadbill, asity, and Sapayoa problem in the same way, and retain Sapayoa as a monotypic family of Old World suboscines, isolated in the Neotropics. Time will tell whether this is the approach that will be favored.

Sapayoa favors ravines and small streams, and is usually found singly or in pairs. Ridgely & Tudor (1994) remark on its unobtrusive behavior which they liken to flatbills; like them it sits quietly between making short sallies out for food. Beyond this, rather little is known. My only encounter with Sapayoa was many years ago in the steaming lowland jungle along Pipeline Road in what used to be the "Canal Zone" [left; standing on the dilapidated bridge are Bay Area birders Joe Morlan (white hat) and Garth Alton (blue shirt)]. I recall watching a Sapayoa when I was alone inside the forest, chasing a mixed flock of antwrens, and it sat quietly in the flock in the undergrowth.

Photos: Markus Lagerqvist photographed the Sapayoa Sapayoa aenigma in Panama in Dec 2008. The painting of Sapayoa is by Guy Tudor from Ridgely & Tudor (1994). The habitat of Sapayoa in humid lowland forest along Pipeline Road, former "Canal Zone," Panama, was taken in January 1981.

Sapayoa photo © Markus Lagerqvist, used with permission, art © Guy Tudor; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" on this enigma. The Handbook of Birds of the World series reached the suboscines in 2004, and treated Sapayoa among the manakins [Pipridae] but acknowledged that its relationships were subject to further research.

Literature cited:

American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-List of North American Birds. 7th ed. A.O.U., Washington, D. C.

Dickinson, E., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Johansson, U.S., M. Irestedt, T.J. Parson, and P.G.P. Ericson. 2002. Basal phylogeny of the Tyrannoidea based on comparisons of cytochrome b and exons of nuclear C-MYS and RAG-1 genes. Auk 119:984–995.

Lanyon, S.M. 1985. Molecular perspective on higher-level relationships in the Tyrannidae (Aves). Syst. Zool. 34: 404–418.

Moyle, R.G., R.T. Chesser, R.O. Prum, P. Schikler, and J. Cracraft. 2006. Phylogeny and evolutionary history of Old World suboscine birds (Aves: Eurylaimides). Amer. Mus. Novitates 3544: 1–22

Prum, R.O., and W.E. Lanyon. 1989. Monophyly and phylogeny of the Schiffornis group (Tyrannoidea). Condor 91: 444–461.

Ridgely, R.S., and G. Tudor. 1994. The Birds of South America. Vol. 2: The Suboscine Passerines. Univ of Texas, Austin.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.




  page originally created 24 Feb 2003, revised 7 Jan 2006 and again 26 July 2009  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved