Toco toucan

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Toco toucan
Toco Toucan (Ramphastos toco) in Papaya Tree (Carica papaya) (28997424215).jpg
CITES Appendix II (CITES)[2]
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Piciformes
Family: Ramphastidae
Genus: Ramphastos
R. toco
Binomial name
Ramphastos toco

See text

Glauco area.png

The toco toucan (Ramphastos toco), also known as the common toucan or giant toucan, is the largest and probably the best known species in the toucan family. It is found in semi-open habitats throughout a large part of central and eastern South America. It is a common attraction in zoos.

Taxonomy and systematics[edit]

German zoologist Philipp Ludwig Statius Müller described the toco toucan in 1776.


Two subspecies are recognized:[3]

  • R. t. toco - Statius Müller, 1776: Found in the Guianas, northern and north-eastern Brazil and south-eastern Peru
  • R. t. albogularis - Cabanis, 1862: Originally described as a separate species. Found in eastern and southern Brazil, northern Bolivia, Paraguay and northern Argentina


The toco toucan has conspicuously contrasting plumage with a mainly black body, a white throat, chest and uppertail-coverts, and red undertail-coverts. What appears to be a blue iris is actually thin blue skin around the eye. This blue skin is surrounded by another ring of bare, orange skin. The most noticeable feature, however, is its huge bill, which measures from 15.8 to 23 cm (6+14 to 9 in) in length, which is yellow-orange, tending to deeper reddish-orange on its lower sections and culmen, and with a black base and large spot on the tip.[4] It looks heavy, but as in other toucans it is relatively light because the inside largely is hollow. The tongue is nearly as long as the bill and very flat. This species is the largest toucan and the largest representative of the order Piciformes.[5] The total length of the species is 55–65 cm (21+1225+12 in). Body weight in these birds can vary from 500 to 876 g (1 lb 1+58 oz to 1 lb 14+78 oz), with males averaging 723 g (1 lb 9+12 oz) against the smaller female, which averages 576 g (1 lb 4+38 oz). Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 22 to 26 cm (8+12 to 10 in), the tail is 14.1 to 17.9 cm (5+916 to 7+116 in) and the tarsus is 4.8 to 6.5 cm (1+78 to 2+916 in).[4] Other than the size difference, there are no external differences between the sexes. Juveniles are duller and shorter-billed than adults. Its voice consists of a deep, coarse croaking, often repeated every few seconds. It also has a rattling call and will bill-clack.


The bill is serrated and is the largest relative to body size of all birds providing 30 to 50% of its body surface area, although another Neotropical species, the sword-billed hummingbird, has a longer bill relative to its body length.[6] It was called by Buffon a "grossly monstrous" appendage.[7] Diverse functions have been suggested. Charles Darwin suggested it was a sexual ornament: "toucans may owe the enormous size of their beaks to sexual selection, for the sake of displaying the diversified and vivid stripes of colour with which these organs are ornamented".[8] Further suggestions have included aid in peeling fruit, intimidating other birds when robbing their nests, social selection related to defense of territory, and as a visual warning.[6][9]

Research has shown that one function is as a surface area for heat exchange.[6] The bill has the ability to modify blood flow and so regulate heat distribution in the body, allowing for the use of the bill as a thermal radiator.[6] In terms of surface area used for this function, the bill relative to the bird's size is amongst the largest of any animal and has a network of superficial blood vessels supporting the thin horny sheath on the bill made of keratin called the rhamphotheca.

In its capacity to remove body heat, the bill is comparable to that of elephant ears.[6] The ability to radiate heat depends upon air speed: if this is low, only 25% of the adult bird's resting heat production is radiated; if high, it radiates as much as four times this heat production. In comparison, the bill of a duck and the ears of an elephant can shed only about 9% of resting heat production.[6] The bill normally is responsible for 30 to 60% of heat loss. The practice of toco toucans of placing their bills under their wings may serve to insulate the bill and reduce heat loss during sleep.[6] It has been observed that "complexities of the vasculature and controlling mechanisms needed to adjust the blood flow to the bill may not be completely developed until adulthood."[6]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The toco toucan occurs in northern and eastern Bolivia, extreme south-eastern Peru, northern Argentina, eastern and central Paraguay, and eastern and southern Brazil (excluding southern Rio Grande do Sul, the dry regions dominated by Caatinga vegetation and coastal regions between Ceará and Rio de Janeiro). Other disjunct populations occur along the lower Amazon River (Ilha de Marajó west approximately to the Madeira River), far northern Brazil in Roraima, coastal regions of the Guianas and it has been recently registered in north-west Uruguay.[10] It only penetrates the Amazon in relatively open areas (e.g. along rivers). It is resident, but local movements may occur.

It is, unlike the other members of the genus Ramphastos, essentially a non-forest species. It can be found in a wide range of semi-open habitats such as woodland, savanna and other open habitats with scattered trees, Cerrado, plantations, forest-edge, and even wooded gardens. It is mainly a species of lowlands, but occurs up to 1,750 m (5,740 ft) near the Andes in Bolivia. It is easily seen in the Pantanal.

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

The toco toucan eats fruit using its bill to pluck them from trees, but also insects, frogs, small reptiles, small birds and their eggs and nestlings. The long bill is useful for reaching things that otherwise would be out-of-reach. It is typically seen in pairs or small groups. In flight it alternates between a burst of rapid flaps with the relatively short, rounded wings, and gliding. Nesting is seasonal, but timing differs between regions. The nest is typically placed high in a tree and consists of a cavity, at least part of which is excavated by the parent birds themselves. It has also been recorded nesting in holes in earth-banks and terrestrial termite-nests. Their reproduction cycle is annual. The female usually lays two to four eggs a few days after mating. The eggs are incubated by both sexes and hatch after 17–18 days. These birds are very protective of themselves and their chicks.


Like the keel-billed toucan, the toco toucan is sometimes kept in captivity, but has a high fruit diet and is sensitive to hemochromatosis (an iron storage disease).[11][12] Also, pet toco toucans must not be permitted to eat mouse (or rat) meat, due to a risk of bacterial infection.[13] There is an ongoing population management plan that should help to revert the decreasing captive population of the toco toucan for Association of Zoos and Aquariums member institutions. This is the second management plan that is occurring since 2001.[14]


Because it prefers open habitats, the toco toucan is likely to benefit from the widespread deforestation in tropical South America. It has a large range and except in the outer regions of its range, it typically is fairly common. It is therefore considered to be of Least Concern by BirdLife International.


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2017). "Ramphastos toco". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2017: e.T22682164A113557535. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-1.RLTS.T22682164A113557535.en. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  2. ^ "Appendices | CITES". Retrieved 14 January 2022.
  3. ^ "IOC World Bird List 6.4". IOC World Bird List Datasets. doi:10.14344/
  4. ^ a b Toucans, Barbets and Honeyguides (Bird Families of the World) by Lester Short & Jennifer Horne. Oxford University Press (2001), ISBN 978-0198546665.
  5. ^ "Toco Toucan (Ramphastos toco)". National Finch and Softbill Society. 26 January 2004. Archived from the original on 14 May 2004.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Tattersall, GJ. Andrade DV. Abe AS. (2009). "Heat Exchange from the Toucan Bill Reveals a Controllable Vascular Thermal Radiator". Science. 325 (5939): 468–470. Bibcode:2009Sci...325..468T. doi:10.1126/science.1175553. PMID 19628866. S2CID 42756257.
  7. ^ Buffon GLL. (1780). Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulièire avec la Description du Cabinet du Roi. L'Impreimerie Royale.
  8. ^ Darwin C. (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Murray.
  9. ^ Jones, JS. (1985). "Evolution: The point of a toucan's bill". Nature. 315 (6016): 182–183. Bibcode:1985Natur.315..182J. doi:10.1038/315182b0. S2CID 32018195.
  10. ^ Observador, El. "La quebrada de los tucanes". El Observador. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
  11. ^ "Is a Toco Toucan the Right Pet Bird for You?". RightPet. Retrieved 30 October 2022.
  12. ^ Kim, Y.-A & Lee, B.-R & Kim, Y.-B & Jeon, J.-K & Oh, S.-H & Youn, S.-H & Kwon, S.-W & Kim, D.-Y. (2013). Hepatic hemochromatosis in a toco toucan (Ramphastos toco). Journal of Veterinary Clinics. 30. 329-331.
  13. ^ "Emerald Forest Bird Gardens - FAQ". Emerald Forest Bird Gardens. Retrieved 30 October 2022.
  14. ^ Toco Toucan Population Management plan. Archived 28 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine Riverbanks Zoo. Accessed 2008-06-28
  • Gilbert, A. (2002). Toco Toucan (Ramphastos toco). pp. 270–271 in: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds (2002). Handbook of Birds of the World. Vol. 7. Jacamars to Woodpeckers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-37-7
  • Restall, R., Rodner, C. & Lentino, M. (2006). Birds of Northern South America - An Identification Guide. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN 0-7136-7242-0
  • Short, L. & Horne, J. (2001). Toucans, Barbets and Honeyguides. Oxford University Press, London. ISBN 0-19-854666-1
  • Sick, H. (1993). Birds of Brazil - A Natural History. Princeton University Press, West Sussex. ISBN 0-691-08569-2

External links[edit]

  • Toco toucan videos on the Internet Bird Collection
  • Stamps (for Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay)