AskDefine | Define hoatzin

Dictionary Definition

hoatzin n : crested ill-smelling South American bird whose young have claws on the first and second digits of the wings [syn: hoactzin, stinkbird, Opisthocomus hoazin]

Extensive Definition

The Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin), also known as the Hoactzin, Stinkbird, or Canje "Pheasant", is an unusual species of tropical bird found in swamps, riverine forest and mangrove of the Amazon and the Orinoco delta in South America. It is the only member of the genus Opisthocomus, which means 'ones with long hair behind' referring to their large crest.
It is pheasant-sized (total length 65 cm/25 in), long-necked and small-headed. It has an unfeathered blue face with maroon eyes, and its head is topped by a spiky, rufous crest. The long sooty-brown tail is broadly tipped buff. The upperparts are dark sooty-brown edged buff on the wings coverts, and streaked buff on the mantle and nape. The underparts are buff, while the crissum, primaries, underwing coverts and flanks are rich rufous-chestnut, but this is mainly visible when it opens its wings. The alternative name of "stinkbird" is derived from the bird's manure-like odour, caused by their digestive system.


The Hoatzin eats the leaves and to a lesser degree fruits of the plants which grow in the marshy and riverine habitats where it lives. It clambers around clumsily among the branches, and being quite tame (though they become stressed by frequent visits), often allows close approach and is reluctant to flush. The Haotzin uses a leathery bump on the bottom of its crop to help balance itself on the branches.
One of this species' many peculiarities is that it has a digestive system unique amongst birds. Hoatzins use bacterial fermentation in the front part of the gut to break down the vegetable material they consume, much like cattle and other ruminants. Unlike ruminants, however, which possess the rumen - a specialized stomach for bacterial fermentation -, in the Hoatzin this is the function of the crop, an enlargement of the esophagus. The crop of the Hoatzin is so large as to displace the flight muscles and keel of the sternum, much to the detriment of their flight capacity. Because of aromatic compounds in the leaves they consume and the bacterial fermentation, the bird has a disagreeable, manure-like odor and is only hunted for food in times of dire need.
Hoatzins are gregarious and nest in small colonies, laying 2-3 eggs in a stick nest in a tree overhanging water in seasonally flooded forests. The chick, which is fed on regurgitated fermented food, has another odd feature; it has two claws on each wing. When disturbed, the chicks drop into the water to escape predation, then use their clawed wings to climb back to the safety of the nest. This has inevitably led to comparisons to the fossil Archaeopteryx, but the characteristic is rather an autapomorphy, possibly caused by an atavism towards the dinosaurian finger claws, the developmental genetics "blueprint" which presumably is still present in the avian genome.
This is a noisy species, with a variety of hoarse calls, one of which has been described as like a heavy smoker's wheezing. Though conspicuous, even attractive, at close range due to its bizarre shape and striking colors (see photos in "External links" section), unwary and a poor flier, it is not considered endangered. In fact, its survival seems to be more assured than that of many other endemics of its range. It is hardly ever hunted due to its nauseousness. While its preferred habitats, mangrove and riverine forest, are disappearing fast in some regions, it is less threatened than terra firme forest, which is the primary target for deforestation in the Amazon. The Hoatzin therefore remains fairly common in a large part its range.


The Hoatzin is arguably the most enigmatic living bird in regard to its phylogenetic relationships. No satisfying evolutionary hypothesis has been proposed, and the situation has actually become worse with the availability of DNA sequence data.
There has been much debate about the Hoatzin's relationships with other birds. It has been given its own family, the Opisthocomidae and suborder (Opisthocomi), which is certainly wise for the time being, given its distinctness. At various times, it has been allied with such taxa as the tinamous, the Galliformes (gamebirds), the rails, the bustards, seriemas, sandgrouse, doves, turacos, other Cuculiformes, and mousebirds, the interrelationships of the "Metaves" were not well resolvable. Nor do supposed metavian groupings like flamingos and nightjars or tropicbirds and hummingbirds seem to have a factual basis rather than being bogus "clades" based on molecular homoplasies. The doves group, with low confidence, with the frogmouths in Fain & Houde's analysis.
Nonetheless, it seems probable that the taxa lumped in the Metaves by Fain & Houde (2004) do contain some good clades, such as Caprimulgiformes, the Mirandornithes, or the Apodiformes. Considering that some "odd Gruiformes" which might be each other's closest living relatives make up most of the remaining Metaves, doves, the Hoatzin, and sandgrouse would remain as "Metaves incerta sedis". This would seem to suggest that the Hoatzin is at least closer related to doves than to any other living birds. Still, the analysis found a Hoatzin-doves clade, placing the frogmouths with some of what with near certainty are their actual relatives - other Cypselomorphae -, even less likely than the highly improbable dove-frogmouth grouping.
As regards other material evidence, the undisputed fossil record of the hoatzins consists of a single backside of the cranium of a fossil hoatzin, specimen UCMP 42823. It is of Miocene origin and was recovered in the upper Rio Magdalena Valley, Colombia. This has been placed into a distinct, less derived genus, Hoazinoides, but clearly would be placed into the same family as the extant species. It markedly differs insofar as that the cranium of the living Hoatzin is characteristic, being much domed, rounded, and shortened, and that these autapomorphies were less pronounced in the Miocene bird. Miller discussed these findings in the light of the supposed affiliation of the hoatzins and the Galliformes, which was the favored hypothesis at that time, but had been controversial almost since its inception. He cautioned, however, "that Hoazinoides by no means establishes a phyletic junction point with other galliforms." for obvious reasons, as we know today. Anything other than the primary findings of Miller are not to be expected in any case, as by the time of Hoazinoides, essentially all modern bird families are either known or believed to have been present and distinct. Going further back in time, the Late Eocene or Early Oligocene (some 34 million years ago) Filholornis from France has also been considered "proof" of a link between the Hoatzin and the gamebirds are sometimes used to argue for a hoatzin-cuculiform (including turacos) link. But as demonstrated above, this must be considered highly speculative, if not as crassly off the mark as the relationship with Cracidae discussed by Miller.
More data has probably been analysed for the Hoatzin than for any other non-ratite bird. As can be seen, not even unequivocal distant relatives can be determined. Thus, those that place the Hoatzin into an order of its own, Opisthocomiformes, might express the continuing uncertainty most adequately.
image:Hoatzin2.jpg|View of head



  • (1994): Why one kilobase sequences from mitochondrial DNA fail to solve the hoatzin phylogenetic enigma. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 3(2): 175-184.
  • Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern
  • (2006): Notes on breeding, behaviour and distribution of some birds in Ecuador. Bull. B.O.C. 126(2): 153-164.
  • (2004): Parallel radiations in the primary clades of birds. Evolution 58(11): 2558-2573. PDF fulltext
  • (1999): Phylogenetic relationships of the enigmatic hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) resolved using mitochondrial and nuclear gene sequences. Molecular Biology and Evolution 16(9): 1300-1307. PDF fulltext
  • (1953): A fossil Hoatzin from the Miocene of Colombia. Auk 70(4): 484-495. PDF fulltext
  • (1990): Distribution and taxonomy of the birds of the world: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. ISBN 0-300-04969-2
  • (2003): More Taxa, More Characters: The Hoatzin Problem is Still Unresolved. Molecular Biology and Evolution 20(9): 1484-1499. PDF fulltext Supplementary Material
  • (1996): Family Opisthocomidae. In: del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew & Sargatal, Jordi (eds.)}} : Handbook of Birds of the World vol. 3 (Hoatzin to Auks): 24-32, plate 1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-20-2 HTML fulltext without images, plate, and reference list.

External links

hoatzin in Catalan: Hoatzin
hoatzin in Danish: Hoatzin
hoatzin in German: Hoatzin
hoatzin in Esperanto: Hoacino
hoatzin in Estonian: Hoatsiin
hoatzin in Spanish: Hoacin
hoatzin in French: Hoazin
hoatzin in Korean: 호아친
hoatzin in Indonesian: Hoatzin
hoatzin in Italian: Opisthocomus hoazin
hoatzin in Georgian: ჰოაცინი
hoatzin in Lithuanian: Hoacininiai
hoatzin in Hungarian: Hoacin
hoatzin in Dutch: Hoatzin
hoatzin in Japanese: ツメバケイ
hoatzin in Polish: Hoacyn
hoatzin in Portuguese: Jacu-cigano
hoatzin in Russian: Гоацин
hoatzin in Slovak: Hoacinotvaré
hoatzin in Finnish: Hoatsin
hoatzin in Swedish: Hoatzin
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