South American Harpy — one of the largest predators on earth. Their fearless attitude can strike terror into the hearts of many species in its habitat. At the top of the food chain, this avian predator is capable of preying on animals the size of monkeys and sloths. The massive wingspan of 2 meters, large claws and hooked beak of the South American harpy make the bird look like a cruel killer of heaven. But behind the terrible appearance of this mysterious creature, there is a caring parent who is fighting for his existence.
Origin of the species and description
The specific name of the harpy comes from the ancient Greek “ἅρπυια” and refers to the mythology of the Ancient Greeks. These creatures had a body similar to an eagle with a human face and carried the dead to Hades. Birds are often referred to as living dinosaurs as they have a unique history going back to the time of the dinosaurs. All modern birds are descended from prehistoric reptiles. Archeopteryx, a reptile that lived on Earth about 150 mil. years ago, has become one of the most important links in the evolution of birds.
Early bird-like reptiles had teeth and claws, as well as feathery scales on their limbs and tail. As a result, these reptiles turned into birds. Modern predators belonging to the Accipitridae family developed in the early Eocene period. The first predators were a group of catching birds and fishermen. Over time, these birds migrated to different habitats and developed adaptations that allowed them to survive and thrive.
Video: South American harpy
The South American harpy was first described by Linnaeus in 1758 as Vultur harpyja. The only member of the genus Harpia, the harpy is most closely related to the crested eagle (Morphnus guianensis) and the New Guinea eagle (Harpyopsis novaeguineae), which form the subfamily Harpiinae in the large family Accipitridae. Based on the molecular sequences of two mitochondrial genes and one nuclear intron.
Lerner and Mindell (2005) found that the genera Harpia, Morphnus (Crested Eagle), and Harpyopsis (New Guinea Harpy Eagle) have a very similar sequence and form a distinct clade. Previously it was thought that the Philippine eagle was also closely related to the South American harpy, but DNA analysis has shown that it is more related to another part of the predator family – Circaetinae.
Appearance and features
Male and female South American harpies have the same plumage. They have gray or slate black feathers on their backs and their belly is white. The head is pale grey, with a black stripe on the chest separating it from the white belly. Both sexes have a double crest at the back of their heads. The females of this species are easily distinguishable as they grow twice as large as the males.
The harpy is one of the heaviest types of eagle. Steller’s sea eagle is the only species that grows larger than South American harpies. In the wild, adult females can weigh up to 8–10 kg, while males average 4–5 kg. The bird can live in the wild for 25 to 35 years. This is one of the largest eagles on earth, its length reaches 85-105 cm. It is the second species after the Philippine eagles in length.
Like most predators, the harpy has exceptional vision. The eyes are made up of several tiny sensory cells that can detect prey from a great distance. The South American harpy is also equipped with keen hearing. Hearing is enhanced by facial feathers that form a disc shape around her ears. This feature is quite common among owls. The shape of the disk projects sound waves directly into the bird’s ears, allowing it to hear the slightest movement around.
Before human intervention, the South American harpy was a very successful creature, capable of destroying large animals by destroying their bones. The development of strong claws and short wing beats allows it to hunt effectively in dense rainforests. But harpies have practically no sense of smell, it depends mainly on sight and hearing. In addition, their highly sensitive eyes do not work well at night. Researchers believe that even humans have better night vision than her.
Where does the South American harpy live?
The range of a rare species begins in the south of Mexico (formerly north of Veracruz, but now probably only in the state of Chiapas), where the bird is almost extinct. Continue across the Caribbean to Central America to Colombia, Venezuela and Guiana in the east, and south through eastern Bolivia and Brazil to the extreme northeast of Argentina. In tropical forests, they live in the emergent layer. The eagle is most common in Brazil, where the bird is found throughout the country, with the exception of some areas of Panama. This species has practically disappeared in Central America after cutting down most of the tropical forests.
The South American harpy lives in tropical lowland forests and can be found in dense roofs, in lowlands and foothills up to 2000 m. They are usually found below 900 m, and only sometimes higher. In tropical forests, South American harpies hunt in the canopy of trees and sometimes on the ground. They do not occur in lightly forested areas, but regularly visit semi-open forests/pastures on hunting raids. These birds fly to areas where full-fledged forestry is practiced.
Harpies are found in a variety of habitats:
- buriti (mauritia sinuous);
- palm groves;
- cultivated fields and cities.
Harpies appear to be able to temporarily survive in isolated patches of primary forest, selectively cut forests, and areas with a few large trees, if they can avoid pursuit and have enough prey. This species is rarely found in open spaces. Harpies are not very wary, but they are surprisingly stealthy despite their large size.
What does the South American harpy eat?
It feeds mainly on medium-sized mammals, including sloths, monkeys, armadillos and deer, large birds, large lizards and occasionally snakes. Hunts inside forests, sometimes at the edge of a river, or makes short flights from tree to tree with amazing agility, looking for and listening to prey.
- Mexico: feed on large iguanas, spider monkeys that were common in this area. Local Indians called these harpies “faisaneros” because they hunted guanas and capuchins;
- Belize: Harpy prey in Belize includes opossums, monkeys, porcupines and gray foxes;
- Panama: sloths, small pigs and deer, monkeys, macaws and other large birds. The harpy fed on the sloth carcass in the same place for three days, and then moved it to another place after the victim’s body weight was sufficiently reduced;
- Ecuador: arboreal mammals, rufous howler monkeys. The most common prey species were sloths, macaws, guanas;
- Peru: monkey squirrels, red howler monkeys, three-toed sloths;
- Guyana: kinkajou, monkeys, sloths, opossums, white-headed saki, coati and agouti;
- Brazil: red howler monkeys, medium-sized primates such as capuchins, sakis, sloths, fawns, hyacinth macaws and crested karyams;
- Argentina: eats margays (long-tailed cats), black capuchins, pygmy porcupines and opossums.
Attacks on livestock have been reported, including chickens, lambs, goats and young pigs, but this is extremely rare under normal circumstances. They control the population of capuchin monkeys, which actively prey on bird eggs and can cause local extinction of sensitive species.
Character and Lifestyle Features
Sometimes harpies become “sedentary” predators. This type is often found in predators that live in forests. In South American harpies, this happens when they sit in the foliage and watch for a long time from a height behind a reservoir where many mammals go to drink water. Unlike other predators of their size, harpies have smaller wings and a longer tail. This is an adaptation that allows a large bird to maneuver its flight path through dense rainforest vegetation.
The South American harpy is the strongest among all birds of prey. As soon as the prey is seen, it flies towards it at high speed and pounces on the prey, grabbing its skull at speeds exceeding 80 km/h. Then, using its large and strong claws, it crushes the skull of its victim, killing it instantly. Hunting large animals, they do not have to hunt every day. Usually the eagle flies back to its nest with prey and feeds for the next few days in the nest.
Fun fact: Under harsh conditions, a harpy can live up to a week without food.
Birds communicate using vocal sounds. A sharp cry can often be heard when harpies are close to their nest. Males and females often use these sound vibrations to keep in touch while they are busy parenting. The chick starts using these sounds between 38 and 40 days of age.
Social Structure and Reproduction
South American harpies begin look for a partner at the age of 4 to 5 years. Males and females of this species spend their lives with the same partner. As soon as a pair unites, it begins to look for suitable nesting sites.
The nest is built at a height of more than 40 m. Construction is carried out jointly by both sexes. South American harpies grab branches with their strong claws and flap their wings, causing the branch to break. Such branches then return to the nesting site and line up together to build a huge nest. The average harpy nest is up to 150-200 cm in diameter and up to 1 meter deep.
Fun fact: Some couples can make several nests in their lifetime, while others prefer to repair and reuse the same nest over and over again.
Once their nest is ready, copulation takes place and after a few days the female lays 2 large, pale white eggs. Incubation is carried out by the female, as the male is small. During this period, males do most of the hunting and incubate eggs for only a short period of time when the female takes a break for feeding. The incubation period is 55 days. As soon as one of the two eggs hatches, the couple ignores the second egg and completely switches to parental care for one newborn.
For the first few months after hatching, the female spends most of her time in the nest, while the male hunts. The chick eats a lot, as it grows very quickly and takes wings at the age of 6 months. However, hunting requires a higher level of skill, which is perfected in the first couple of years of the life cycle. The adults feed the juvenile for a year or two. Young South American harpies lead a solitary life for the first few years.
Natural enemies of South American harpies
Adult birds are at the top of the food chain and are rarely hunted. They have virtually no natural predators in the wild. However, two adult South American harpies that were released into the wild as part of a reintroduction program were captured by a jaguar and a much smaller predator, the ocelot.
Hatched chicks can be quite vulnerable to other birds of prey due to their small size, but under the protection of their large mother, the chick has the best chance of surviving. This type of predation is rare as the parents are very protective of the nest and their territory. The South American harpy needs about 30 km² to hunt adequately. They are very territorial animals and will drive out any competing species.
There have been many cases of local extinction in areas with active human activity. It is caused mainly by habitat destruction due to logging and farming. There have also been reports of farmers who perceive South American harpies as dangerous livestock predators shooting them at the first opportunity. Special programs are being developed to train farmers and hunters to raise awareness and understanding of the importance of these birds.
Population and species status
Although the South American harpy is still found in large areas, its distribution and numbers are constantly declining. It is threatened primarily by habitat loss due to increased logging, cattle ranching and agriculture. Also, bird hunting is carried out because of the real threat to livestock and the perceived threat to human life due to its huge size.
Although in fact the facts of hunting people have not been recorded, and only in rare cases do they hunt livestock. Such threats spread throughout its range, in much of which the bird has become only a temporary spectacle. In Brazil they have been almost wiped out and are found only in the most remote parts of the Amazon.
The 2001 population estimates at the beginning of the breeding season were 10,000-100,000 individuals. Although it should be noted that some observers may misestimate the number of individuals and increase the population to tens of thousands. Estimates in this range are largely based on the assumption that there is still a large population of harpies in the Amazon.
Already since the mid-1990s, the harpy has been found in large numbers in Brazilian territory only on the north side of the equator . Scientific records from the 1990s, however, suggest that populations may migrate.
South American Harpy Conservation
Despite all efforts, the decline in the population continues. General awareness of the importance of this species is spreading among humans, but if the rapid pace of deforestation is not stopped, the magnificent South American harpies may disappear from the wild in the near future. There is no exact population data. In 2008, fewer than 50,000 individuals were estimated to remain in the wild.
IUCN estimates show that the species has lost up to 45.5% of its suitable habitat in just 56 years. As such, Harpia harpyja is listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List 2012. It is also Critically Endangered by CITES (Appendix I).
Conservation of the South American harpy depends on habitat protection to prevent it from reaching endangered species status. The harpy eagle is considered critically endangered in Mexico and Central America, where it has been extirpated from much of its former range. It is considered endangered or vulnerable in much of its South American range. In the southern part of its range, in Argentina, it is found only in the forests of the Paraná Valley in the province of Misiones. It disappeared from El Salvador and almost from Costa Rica.
The South American harpy is very important for the rainforest ecosystem. Saving the population can help conserve the many tropical species that share its habitat. These predators control the number of arboreal and terrestrial mammals in the rainforest, which ultimately allows the vegetation to thrive. The extinction of the South American harpy may adversely affect the entire tropical ecosystem of Central and South America.