By Payton Brooks and Tyler Brooks, social media editor and senior ornithologist
From cereal boxes to the rainforests in Central and South America, toucans can be easily identified. However, beyond the beak lies diversity among the birds themselves.
The most commonly known species is the Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco). Tocos have sleek black feathers covering their bodies and bright orange bills. They are the largest of the toucans, with males weighing in at an average of 1.594 pounds and females 1.270 pounds. They can be as long as 26 inches, which puts a massive difference between themselves and their smaller relatives, toucanets and aracaris, at almost half the size.
The beaks of toucans are made of the substance in human hair and nails: keratin. It attaches to the skull in an upper and a lower mandible and works much like one on a human. The lower jaw unhinges at the base while the upper portion cannot move, making it useful to grab food and chew.
A question bouncing around the brains of researchers, ornithologists, and common folk alike is, “Why do they have beaks like that anyway?”. There is no definite answer, but many theories exist.
One explanation may be that it is to gather fruit and other foods from trees, but that still does not explain the vibrant colors that are clearly not for suitable camouflage. It has been ruled out, however, that it is for courtship rituals as it does not differentiate between sexes. Their Old World counterparts, hornbills, also possess gaudy bills, so clearly it serves some unknown purpose.
The toucans with green bills are keel-billed toucans (Ramphastos sulfuratus), are the other well-known species of toucan, possessing a green and orange beak with a large red apex. Both Tocos and keel-bills, as well as smaller variants such as aracaris, can be owned as a pet; however, they are some of the messiest and most expensive pets out there, with most investments for a good owner being near $10,000 per toucan. These pets are still wild animals, can’t be trained easily, and have serrated bills, so it’s my highest recommendation you don’t even consider one.
While toucans are one of the most recognizable bird, they are poorly understood birds. They have a beauty and mystery smack-dab on their face, and are just overall beautiful and elegant creatures. Think about that next time you’re eating your Fruit Loops, Sam.