The hoatzin is a chicken-sized relative of the cuckoo bird that can’t fly very well and smells like cow manure. It can express itself through hisses, meows or screams and the chicks are born with functional claws at its fledgling wingtips so they can climb to avoid predators. Found in the South American lowlands, specifically in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and the Amazonian Brazil, the hoatzin only eats leaves, a light diet compared to other birds that go for higher-energy food sources such as fruits and seeds.
The hoatzin’s distinctive smell turns out to be linked to its inability to fly. The bird has an enlarged crop and upper esophagus, which crowds out space on the sternum (wishbone) for flight muscles. The crop or foregut is similar to a cow’s rumen and contains microbial communities that break down the leafy biomass in its meals. Because of this foregut fermentation, the smelly bird that can be detected before it is even sighted. Taking advantage of the similarity between the hoatzin foregut and the cow rumen, researchers want to sequence the microbial communities in the bird’s crop using methods previously established for studying termite hindguts. They hope to identify novel enzymes that can break down plant cell walls for biofuel applications and gain insight into how these microbial communities are shaped by their hosts.
Principal Investigators: Maria G. Dominguez-Bello
Program: CSP 2009