The tapaculos (pronounced /tæpəˈku:ləʊ/) are a family, Rhinocryptidae, of small suboscine passerine birds, found mainly in South America and with the highest diversity in the Andean regions. Three species (Chocó, Tacarcuna, and the silvery-fronted) are found in southern Central America.

Ocellated Tapaculo (Acropternis orthonyx)
Ocellated tapaculo, Acropternis orthonyx
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Superfamily: Formicaroidea
Family: Rhinocryptidae
Wetmore, 1930



Tapaculos are small to medium-sized birds, with a total length ranging from 10–24 cm (4–9½ in). These are terrestrial species that fly only poorly on their short wings. They have strong legs, well-suited to their habitat of grassland or forest undergrowth. The tail is cocked and pointed towards the head, and the name tapaculo possibly derives from Spanish for "cover your behind". Another possible explanation is that it originates from the Chilean name for the white-throated tapaculo, simply tapaculo, which is an onomatopoeic reference to its commonly heard song.

While the majority of the family are small blackish or brown birds there are some larger and more colourful species. All tapaculos are skulking birds that frequently stay low in dense vegetation, even the larger, colorful species, and this renders them difficult to see. They are best located and – in the case of Scytalopus spp. – identified by their vocalisations.

They feed on insects, seeds and other soft plant material with their pointed bills, and will scratch on the ground like a pheasant.

Most species lay two or three white eggs in a covered location, whether it be a burrow, a hole in a tree, or a domed nest.

Status and conservation

Some species have highly localized distributions and, being poor fliers, they easily become isolated in small populations. BirdLife International currently (2007) consider one species vulnerable (Scytalopus panamensis), three species endangered (S. iraiensis, S. rodriguezi and S. robbinsi), and two species critically endangered (Eleoscytalopus psychopompus and Merulaxis stresemanni). The two critically endangered species are restricted to Atlantic forest of eastern Brazil, and were only recently rediscovered after several years without any records.

Taxonomy and systematics

The tapaculos were traditionally placed in a distinct family Rhinocryptidae; more recent research (Irestedt et al. 2002, Rice 2005a,b) indicates that according to analysis of mt and nDNA sequence data, the tapaculos might be better merged into the Formicariidae as tribe Rhinocryptini, as they are closer to the antthrushes than either is to the true antpittas.

Alternatively, the latter might be raised to family status. In this case, it would be possible to maintain the tapaculos as a separate family too, but it would seem altogether more warranted to consider them a subfamily of the Formicariinae sensu stricto, which would be called Rhinocryptinae.

Whether this latter approach, the placement as a tribe in a tapaculo-antthrush Formicariinae subfamily, or maintenance as a separate family is to be preferred depends on whether the true antpittas are closer to the tapaculos and true antbirds, or rather to the Pittasoma "gnatthrushes" and other gnateaters and the true antbirds. There are some, albeit very tentative, indications that the latter may indeed be the case, which would be reflected in the placement of the tapaculos as subfamily Rhinocryptinae, with the Formicariinae being restricted to the true antthrushes (Rice 2005a). Today, the tapaculos continue in the Rhinocryptidae until the systematics can be further defined.

Apparently not all tapaculo genera would have to be moved to the formicariids (Irestedt et al. 2002). As the type genus Rhinocrypta certainly would, any distinct genera (such as the peculiar crescent-chests) would need a new family name.

An alternative family name Pteroptochidae, has been used historically.[1]

Taxonomy of Scytalopus

The species-limits within the genus Scytalopus is among the most complex matters in Neotropical ornithology. They are highly cryptic, and identification using visual features often is impossible. Vocal and biochemical data is typically needed to clarify the taxonomic status of the various populations. Several new species have been described in recent years (e.g. S. stilesi and S. rodriguezi from Colombia). The Brazilian taxa are similarly complex with several recently described species and considerable confusion surrounding the use of the scientific name Scytalopus speluncae.

Additionally, still undescribed species are known to exist (e.g. the "Apurimac tapaculo" and "Millpo tapaculo"; both from Peru), while some species as currently defined actually may include several species (e.g. the southern population of the large-footed tapaculo may represent a yet undescribed species). The confusing situation is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that only ten species were recognized in this genus in 1970 (Krabbe & Schulenberg, 2003), while the figure now is more than four times as high.

Species list

Genera allied with antthrushes

Placement unresolved


  • Correa, Alejandro, Mpodozis, Jorge & Sallaberry, Michel. (2014): Chilean Rhinocryptidae (Avian):speciation. Impressum/Imprint OmniScriptum GmbH & CoKG. Verlag/publisher: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing. Printed in Germany. All right reserved Saarbrücken. ISBN 978-3-659-55015-7.
  • Correa, Alejandro (2009): Biological similarities between Chilean Tapaculos. Impressum/Imprint (nur für Deutschland/only for Germany) Publisher VDM Verlag.Printed in the USA. Printed in the UK. All right reserved Saarbrücken. ISBN 978-3-639-18137-1.
  • Irestedt, Martin; Fjeldså, Jon; Johansson, Ulf S. & Ericson, Per G.P. (2002): Systematic relationships and biogeography of the tracheophone suboscines (Aves: Passeriformes). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 23(3): 499–512. doi:10.1016/S1055-7903(02)00034-9 (HTML abstract)
  • Krabbe, N, and Schulenberg, T. (2003). Family Rhinocryptidae (Tapaculos). pp. 748–787 in: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., and Christie, D. eds. (2003). Handbook of Birds of the World. Vol. 8. Broadbills to Tapaculos. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-50-4
  • Maurício, G, (2005). Taxonomy of the southern population in the Scytalopus speluncae group, with the description of a new species and remarks on the systematics and biogeography of the complex (Passeriformes: Rhinocryptidae). Ararajuba. 13(1): 7-28.
  • Raposo, M., Stopiglia, R., Loskit, V., and Kirwin, G. (2006). The correct use of the name Scytalopus speluncae (Ménétriés, 1835), and the description of a new species of Brazilian tapaculo (Aves: Passeriformers: Rhinocryptidae). Zootaxa 1271: 37-56.
  • Rice, Nathan H. (2005a): Phylogenetic relationships of antpitta genera (Passeriformes: Formicariidae). Auk 122(2): 673-683. [English with Spanish abstract] DOI:10.1642/0004-8038(2005)122[0673:PROAGP]2.0.CO;2 PDF fulltext
  • Rice, Nathan H. (2005b): Further Evidence for Paraphyly of the Formicariidae (Passeriformes). Condor 107(4): 910-915. [English with Spanish abstract] doi:10.1650/7696.1 PDF fulltext
  • Status of the members of Rhinocryptidae BirdLife International (2007).
  • Comitê Brasileiro de Registros Ornitológicos: List of Birds in Brazil


  1. ^ HBW vol 8, page 748
  2. ^ Placement here needs confirmation.

External links

Ash-colored tapaculo

The ash-colored tapaculo (Myornis senilis) is a tapaculo species. Placed in the monotypic genus Myornis, its affiliations are not well-determined; provisionally it is placed with the other tapaculos in the family Formicariidae.

It is found in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist montane forests.

Bahia tapaculo

The Bahia tapaculo (Eleoscytalopus psychopompus) is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family. It is endemic to lowland Atlantic forests in Bahia, Brazil. Until recently, it was feared extinct, but has since been rediscovered and is now known from the municipalities of Ilhéus, Maraú, Taperoá, Valença. It remains highly threatened by habitat loss and is consequently considered endangered by BirdLife International and IUCN. Together with the closely related white-breasted tapaculo, it was formerly placed in the genus Scytalopus, but these two species are now known to be closer to the bristlefronts (genus Merulaxis).

Blackish tapaculo

The blackish tapaculo (Scytalopus latrans) is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family.

It is found in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela.

Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist montane forests.

Brasília tapaculo

The Brasília tapaculo (Scytalopus novacapitalis) is a species of bird in the family Rhinocryptidae.

It is endemic to Brazil.

Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests.

It is threatened by habitat loss.

Caracas tapaculo

The Caracas tapaculo (Scytalopus caracae) is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family.

It is endemic to Venezuela.

Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist montane forests.

Chucao tapaculo

The chucao tapaculo (Scelorchilus rubecula) is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family. It is found in central Chile and adjacent Argentina; it has also been spotted in the Magallanes Province. Its natural habitat is temperate forests. The diet of the chucao tapaculo is dominated by invertebrates and fruits. This bird show a pattern of aggressiveness and territoriality towards the other species of tapaculos in the forest of southern Chile. The chucao tapaculo seems vulnerable to the fragmentation of its habitat.

Magellanic tapaculo

The Magellanic tapaculo (Scytalopus magellanicus) is a small passerine bird of southern South America. It belongs to the genus Scytalopus, a genus of tapaculos.

Marsh tapaculo

The marsh tapaculo (Scytalopus iraiensis) is a recently discovered passerine bird which belongs to the genus Scytalopus, a genus of tapaculos. It is also known as the wetland tapaculo or tall-grass wetland tapaculo. It is endemic to Brazil.

Nariño tapaculo

The Nariño tapaculo (Scytalopus vicinior) is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family.

It is found in Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama.

Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist montane forests. It is not considered a threatened species by the IUCN.

Niels Krabbe

Niels Kaare Krabbe (born 1 July 1951) is an ornithologist and bird conservationist for many years based at the Vertebrate Department of the Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen and tutored by Jon Fjeldså. His research interests include various aspects of ornithology, especially bioacoustics, conservation, and systematics and altitudinal replacements of Scytalopus tapaculos. He has worked extensively in the Andes, especially Ecuador, and wrote the passerine section of Birds of the High Andes (1990) and the accounts of most Andean species in Threatened Birds of the Americas (1992). He has helped build up a large tissue collection in the Zoological Museum and has authored or coauthored several bioacoustic publications and peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals.

Since 1998 he has worked with Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco on conservation of Ecuadorian birds, paying special attention to the pale-headed brush-finch (Atlapetes pallidiceps), for which he had searched for several years. The species was feared extinct, but he finally found a small population in 1998. Only 10–22 pairs remained, but owing to conservation efforts, it is now recuperating, with c. 100 pairs counted since 2009, when the reserve became saturated with territories.

Ocellated tapaculo

The ocellated tapaculo (Acropternis orthonyx) is a large bird found in the northern Andes in South America. It is a highly distinctive tapaculo; traditionally united with its closest relatives in the Rhinocryptidae, this family is paraphyletic with the Formicariidae (ground-antbirds) but instead of merging the tapaculos with the ground-antbird family, recent sources tend to split the antpittas from the Formicariidae.

This passerine averages 8.3-8.7 in (21–22 cm) in length and between 2.8-3.5 oz (80 and 100 gram). The bird is mostly black with large white spots, a brown flank, and a reddish head and throat. A call, apparently given by birds to announce their presence to conspecifics, is described as "loud, emphatic WHEEUW! whistle" which as it seems can be heard from a long distance.It is sometimes divided into two subspecies: Acropternis orthonyx infuscatus is found in the mountains of Ecuador and northern Peru. The nominate subspecies A. o. orthonyx ranges further north, from the Cordillera Central and Cordillera Oriental of Colombia to the mountains of northwestern Venezuela, with small populations also present in the Cordillera Occidental (in Antioquia and the Páramo de Frontino at least). It is not usually found on the Amazonian slope of the East Colombian and Venezuelan mountains it inhabits; on the Cordillera Oriental it is only known so far in a few places between 8,200-10,000 ft (2,500-3,000 m) ASL. The northern and southern populations are barely distinguishable and many authors accept no subspecies at all.

It favors humid and rather low-growing forest with canopy heights of about 50–80 ft (15–25 m). Dominant trees can include for example Brunellia, Hieronyma rufa (Phyllanthaceae), Ocotea calophylla (Lauraceae), oaks (Quercus), glorytrees (Tibouchina) and Weinmannia, usually heavily overgrown with epiphytes. More important is the presence of a tangled understory with abundant stands of South American mountain bamboo (Chusquea), forming an impenetrable thicket together with other plants such as Geonoma weberbaueri palms or Ericaceae shrubs. Due to its dependence on bamboo thickets which only grow in clearings it seems to tolerate selective logging well and may actually benefit from it.The ocellated tapaculo eats plant material and arthropods, which it digs up using both feet simultaneously. It is usually encountered in pairs or alone, hopping through bamboo along the forest floor. Preferring to stay close to the ground, it is more often heard than seen. It is possible to attract ocellated tapaculos with recorded or imitated calls, which they will approach to investigate from several kilometers away. Though shy and retiring and affected by habitat destruction like all forest birds of the tropical Americas, it is common enough to be considered a Species of least concern by the IUCN.

Pale-bellied tapaculo

The pale-bellied tapaculo (Scytalopus griseicollis), also known as the matorral tapaculo or rufous-bellied tapaculo, is a species of bird in the family Rhinocryptidae. It is found in Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela. Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist montane forests.

Paramillo tapaculo

The Paramillo tapaculo (Scytalopus canus) is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family.

Perijá tapaculo

The Perijá tapaculo (Scytalopus perijanus) is a species of passerine bird in the family Rhinocryptidae (tapaculos). Endemic to the Serranía del Perijá mountain range on the Colombia–Venezuela border, the Perijá tapaculo is found at altitudes of 1,600–3,225 metres (5,200–10,600 feet). It measures 10 to 12 centimetres (3.9 to 4.7 inches), and its tail is around 40 mm (1.6 in) long. Specimens have long been stored in museums, but the species was only described in 2015 based on sixteen specimens found between July 2008 and February 2009. It is considered vulnerable.

Adults have neutral grey heads, brown necks, brown-sepia striped backs, and grey-white bellies, breasts, and throats. Males have some buff markings on their breasts, and less sharp brown spots on their napes than females. The Perijá tapaculo is a secretive bird and therefore difficult to observe; as a result its ecology is poorly known. It feeds on insects and reproduces between April and July. Its range is partially within Chamicero de Perijá Bird Reserve in Colombia and the Sierra de Perijá National Park in Venezuela.

Rusty-belted tapaculo

The rusty-belted tapaculo, Liosceles thoracicus, is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family. It was first described by Philip Lutley Sclater in 1865. It is monotypic within the genus Liosceles. It is found in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, where its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests.


Scytalopus is a genus of small passerine birds belonging to the tapaculo group. They are found in South and Central America from Tierra del Fuego to Costa Rica, but are absent from the Amazon Basin. They inhabit dense vegetation at or near ground-level and are mainly found in mountainous regions, particularly the Andes. They can be very difficult to see as they run through the undergrowth in a mouse-like fashion.

Tacarcuna tapaculo

The Tacarcuna tapaculo (Scytalopus panamensis) is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family. It is found in Colombia and Panama.

Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist montane forests. It is threatened by habitat loss.

Unicolored tapaculo

The unicolored tapaculo (Scytalopus unicolor) is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family.

It is found in Peru. The blackish tapaculo, S. latrans, is now considered a separate species.

Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical moist montane forests and subtropical or tropical high-altitude shrubland.

White-breasted tapaculo

The white-breasted tapaculo (Eleoscytalopus indigoticus) is a species of bird in the Rhinocryptidae family. It is endemic to Atlantic forest in south-eastern Brazil. It is threatened by habitat loss. Together with the closely related Bahia tapaculo, it was formerly placed in the genus Scytalopus, but these two species are now known to be closer to the bristlefronts (genus Merulaxis).


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