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Eco Mural Project 10: Channel-Billed Toucan, Green Line Cafe Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA.

Painted and designed by Olivia Losee-Unger

“I do have hope. Nature is enormously resilient, humans are vastly intelligent, the energy and enthusiasm that can be kindled among young people seems without limit, and the human spirit is indomitable. But if we want life, we will have to stop depending on someone else to save the world. It is up to us-you and me, all of us.” -Jane Goodall


     Of all the wonderful creatures that inhabit the Amazon rainforest, one of the most distinct and well-known is the toucan. The most vulnerable toucan species is called the Channel-Billed, and Hagopian Arts is excited to shine a light on this lesser-known tropical bird. The Channel-Billed Toucan can be identified by the soft grooves that run down the sides of its iconic beak and its dazzling black, red, and orange plumage. Toucans like this one range from Central America all the way to northern Argentina, with their concentration being highest in the humid lowland forests of Bolivia.

     Toucans are most recognizable for their brightly colored, extra-large beaks. The toucan has the largest beak to body ratio of any bird on earth, with their bills often accounting for one-third of their total length! Each of the 35 species of toucan has a specially adapted beak, often brightly colored and patterned. Scientists continue to debate on the purpose of the flashy patterning, with theories ranging from identifying mates to warding off predators. Quite a bit is known, however, about the structure of their iconic mouthpieces. Despite their large size and unwieldy appearance, toucan beaks are incredibly light. They are constructed out of bone covered in keratin, the same substance that makes up our fingernails and hair. Their large beaks are useful in tropical climates where food comes in many forms and is often hotly competed for: toucans live off of a primarily fructivorous diet, using their beaks to strip, peel, and tear at the tough fruits and nuts that can be found in the Amazon. Their beaks make reaching unsteady branches and crannies amongst dense foliage a breeze, and are great for snapping up the occasional lizard or smaller bird. Like other fructivorous tropical animals, toucans play an important role in the Amazon’s complex ecological chain by scattering seeds from the fruit they eat, ensuring diversity amongst plants and an even distribution of flora in their habitats. 

     Toucans are highly social birds, living in groups of about 20 individuals. They have short wingspans, allowing for maneuverability through the forest but preventing long flights; as a result, toucans don’t migrate, often living in the same geographic area for their entire lives. Unfortunately, this makes them particularly vulnerable to sudden habitat and climate shifts brought on by human interference.

     Like most rainforest-dwellers across the world, toucans are in decline. Channel-Billed Toucans are reported to be in the most peril out of all toucan species: according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Channel-Billed Toucan population has dropped by 30% since 2002. The major factors for their decline are human encroachment, deforestation, environmental degradation, and groundwater pollution. 

     The Amazon rainforest is the most biodiverse and species-rich biome on earth and serves as one of the largest oxygen producers on the planet. The richness of its inhabitants and the density of forest, unfortunately, makes it a target for poachers, loggers, and ranchers. Deforestation is the single largest threat to the Amazon currently, with a dramatic example of accelerating forest degradation being the extensive human-induced fires that occurred over the course of 2019. These recent fires were a direct result of Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro loosening effective environmental regulations. It is estimated that 80% of ongoing deforestation in the Amazon is directly tied to logging and scorched-earth burning at the hands of ranchers clearing land for their cattle. 

     The Amazon is an incredibly complex ecosystem that is self-sustaining. The high concentration of plant life generates its own weather system, producing the high humidity the forest is named for. The rainforest also creates fresh water for the majority of Central and South America, maintains the most biodiverse region in the world, and regulates temperature across South America. As tree cover shrinks and biodiversity is lost, a phenomenon occurs called “savanization” or desertification. This occurs when the forest loses mass and by extension its ability to generate its own rainfall, starving its flora of the necessary water and humidity to maintain itself and causing a domino effect of drying and dying. Scientists warn that if the Amazon rainforest is degraded much further, it will be a catastrophic event in our fight against climate change, removing any possibility of slowing devastating temperature changes and glacier melt. 

     Toucans exist in the most complicated and intricate environments in the world. It is impossible to preserve them without preserving their labyrinth habitat. The Amazon is essential not only to South American biodiversity and environmental health but to the survival of people across the world. The rainforest’s unparalleled biodiversity has so much to offer humanity, from unlimited scientific information on its wildlife and their complex relationships to the many medicines that are derived from its unique flora and fauna. The Amazon’s role in curbing greenhouse gasses and regulating our atmosphere is a linchpin in our multifaceted effort to preserve the Earth. This is one of the most important battles in our fight against climate change and our effort to preserve our biodiversity. 

Channel-Billed Toucan

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