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An Evolutionary Enigma: The Sapayoa

Updated: Nov 13, 2022

The Sapayoa  (Sapayoa aegnima)   is so different from other passerine birds that it is currently placed in its own family, Sapayoidae.  It is restricted to lowland and foothills  (to 600 m.)  evergreen forest in the Chocó between central Panama and northwestern Ecuador.  It is an inconspicuous, olive-yellow bird of the forest understory that perches upright and catches insects,  where it is uncommon to rare. 

But although the Sapayoa—whose scientific name actually contains the word aenigma, which means "mystery" in Latin, has at times been classified as a flycatcher or manakin.

Molecular evidence has revealed that it is in fact the only representative of the broadbills (Eurylaimidae) in the New World and may be the only relict of this ancient lineage remaining in America. In fact, the Sapayoas closest relatives are found around the Indian Ocean in parts of Africa and Asia.  

This surprising piece of biogeography-one species separated from its ancestry by an entire ocean-had already been suggested by genetic data. Scientists have confirmed this really is a lost bird, the only example of its genetic family to be found for thousands of miles in any direction.  One would never guess from its plumage that its closest relatives are the gaudy and colorful broadbills of tropical Asia and Africa.

Sapayoa favors ravines and small streams, and is usually found singly or in pairs, and is best detected by scanning carefully through mixed flocks or listening for its soft trill.  Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Status not well known, largely because species is generally quiet and unobtrusive. 


BirdLife International 2018. Sapayoa aenigma. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22698786A130196553.

Dzielski, S.A., Van Doren, B.M., Hruska, J.P., and Hite, J.M. 2016. Reproductive biology of the Sapayoa (Sapayoa aenigma), the “Old World suboscine” of the New World. Auk DOI: 10.1642/AUK-16-5.1.

Lanyon, S.M. 1985. Molecular perspective on higher-level relationships in the Tyrannidae (Aves). Syst. Zool. 34: 404-418.

Moyle, R.G., R.T. Chesser, R.O. Prum, P. Schikler, and J. Cracraft. 2006. Phylogeny and evolutionary history of Old World suboscine birds (Aves: Eurylaimides). Amer. Mus. Novitates 3544: 1-22

Prum, R. O. 1993. Phylogeny, biogeography, and evolution of the broadbills (Eurylaimidae) and asities (Philepittidae) based on morphology. Auk 110: 304-324.

Ridgely, R.S., and G. Tudor. 1994. The Birds of South America. Vol. 2: The Suboscine Passerines. Univ of Texas, Austin.

Sapayoa (Sapayoa aenigma), In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online:

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

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