ProAves expedition solves Tapaculo mystery
The Tapaculos (genus Scytalopus) are one of the most complicated groups of birds to identify largely as they look strikingly similar, but their voice is one of the key ways to distinguish between different taxa. In recent decades, the surge of bird recordings by ornithologists from across the Andes has revealed the tremendous diversity of Tapaculo species with the number of recognized species having risen from ten to nearly forty. For example, in 2008, another ProAves project resulted in the discovery of a new subspecies Scytalopus griseicollis gilesi and alerted ornithologists to a further four undescribed populations in Colombia and Venezuela. See more. There are several species complexes that remain unresolved and new species and subspecies pending to be described.
The Paramo Tapaculo (Scytalopus canus) is common in the timberline and paramo areas of the Northern Andes of Colombia, Ecuador, and northern Peru. It was described 95 years ago by Frank Chapman on the basis of ten specimens collected at 3,810 meters elevation on Páramo de Paramillo in the Western Cordillera of Antioquia, Colombia. This site has been inaccessible for decades so further information on this species was not possible.
In August 2004, a ProAves expedition led by our Council member Dr Niels Krabbe, undertook the first bird survey of the highest massif in the Western Cordillera after over 50 years, in the Páramo del Sol (also known as Páramo Frontino), in the municipality of Urrao, Antioquia - 70 km SSW of Páramo de Paramillo. The results of that expedition have been tremendous, including the rediscovery of the Critically Endangered Dusky Starfrontlet and the establishment of the Colibri del Sol Bird Reserve by ProAves that protects a critical tract of montane forest and páramo in the Paramo del Sol.
During this expedition, Niels Krabbe (one of the leading experts on the Scytalopus genus) made tape recordings and collected one Paramo Tapaculo in the now Colibri del Sol Bird Reserve which formed the basis to permit a major revision of the species across its entire range. Working in collaboration with Dr Daniel Cadena of Los Andes University in Bogota (Laboratorio de Biología Evolutiva de Vertebrados), they examined the phylogenetic relationships and patterns of genetic variation (together with vocalizations) within the entire complex and other Tapaculo species using DNA sequences.
On 9 February, Dr Niels Krabbe and Dr Daniel Cadena published in Zootaxa a revision to the Paramo Tapaculo which is now composed of multiple taxa (three differentiated lineages), including a new subspecies - Scytalopus opacus androstictus from southern Ecuador and northernmost Peru. The original “Paramo Tapaculo” has changed its name to "Paramillo Tapaculo" (Scytalopus canus) and now only known from a highly restricted area of timberline vegetation on Paramo de Paramillo and Paramo del Sol. The subspecies Scytalopus canus opacus has been given species ranking and given the name Paramo Tapaculo (Scytalopus opacus) which occurs across the Northern Andes of Colombia (except the Western Cordillera), Ecuador and northernmost Peru.
The highly range restricted Paramillo Tapaculo is know from a narrow swath of treeline vegetation (scrub, stunted trees and polylepis woodland) situated between montane forest and páramo grasslands that is often just hundreds of meters wide on both Paramo del Sol and Paramo de Paramillo. While locally common, the estimated area of suitable habitat in both areas for the species is 3 km squared. Only 0.1 km2 is effectively protected by the Colibri del Sol Bird Reserve. Presently, both Paramo del Sol and Paramo de Paramillo are suffering from a severe drought with at least one fire accidentally started by hikers in late January that destroyed a large area of habitat on Paramo del Sol. Extreme droughts related to El Niño, plus the future impacts of climate change, present serious risks for the species and its fragile habitat.
Given the Paramillo Tapaculo’s estimated extent of occurrence and observed decline in the extent and quality of habitat, ProAves considers that the Paramillo Tapaculo probably warrants IUCN Critically Endangered status with immediate efforts to assess its population and implement actions to assist its survival.
To see the first and only photos of Paramillo Tapaculo alive and view the sole location to see the species (in ProAves reserve) see Flickr.