Tiny Bird, Huge Mystery-The Possibly Extinct Hooded Seedeater (Sporophila melanops) Is a Capuchino with a Melanistic Cap

PLoS One. 2016 May 11;11(5):e0154231. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0154231. eCollection 2016.


Known with certainty solely from a unique male specimen collected in central Brazil in the first quarter of the 19th century, the Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) Hooded Seedeater Sporophila melanops has been one of the great enigmas of Neotropical ornithology, arguably the only one of a host of long-lost species from Brazil to remain obstinately undiscovered. We reanalysed the morphology of the type specimen, as well as a female specimen postulated to represent the same taxon, and sequenced mitochondrial DNA (COI and Cyt-b) from both individuals. Furthermore, we visited the type locality, at the border between Goiás and Mato Grosso, and its environs on multiple occasions at different seasons, searching for birds with similar morphology to the type, without success. Novel genetic and morphological evidence clearly demonstrates that the type of S. melanops is not closely related to Yellow-bellied Seedeater S. nigricollis, as has been frequently postulated in the literature, but is in fact a representative of one of the so-called capuchinos, a clade of attractively plumaged seedeaters that breed mostly in the Southern Cone of South America. Our morphological analysis indicates that S. melanops has a hitherto unreported dark-coffee throat and that it is probably a Dark-throated Seedeater S. ruficollis collected within its wintering range, acquiring breeding plumage and showing melanism on the cap feathers. Alternatively, it may be a melanistic-capped individual of a local population of seedeaters known to breed in the Esteros del Iberá, Corrientes, Argentina, to which the name S. ruficollis might be applicable, whilst the name S. plumbeiceps might be available for what is currently known as S. ruficollis. A hybrid origin for S. melanops cannot be ruled out from the available data, but seems unlikely. The purported female specimen of S. melanops pertains either to S. nigricollis or to Double-collared Seedeater S. caerulescens based on genetic and morphological data, and thus cannot be a female of S. melanops. We conclude that Sporophila melanops is not typical of any natural population of seedeaters, appears to have been collected far from its breeding grounds while overwintering in central Brazil, and should not be afforded any conservation status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Argentina
  • Body Size
  • Brazil
  • Cytochromes b / genetics
  • Electron Transport Complex IV / genetics
  • Female
  • Genetic Speciation*
  • Male
  • Passeriformes / classification
  • Passeriformes / genetics*
  • Phylogeny*
  • Pigmentation / genetics*
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA


  • Cytochromes b
  • Electron Transport Complex IV

Grant support

JIA's research was possible thanks to funding by CONICET. VQP’s visit to NMW was part of his Ph.D. research, which was funded by FAPESP (grant n. 06/60300-4). LFS received a grant from CNPq. Fieldwork in November 2009 was funded by Conservation International. GMK’s December 2008 / January 2009 fieldwork was conducted under the auspices of a privately developed project in search of Sporophila melanops, which was partially funded by the Birdfair / Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Research Fund for Endangered Birds. His July 2010 fieldwork, again in search of S. melanops, was entirely funded by BirdLife International. Nigel Collar, Fernando Pacheco and David Wege kindly served as referees for project applications, and Paul Donald speeded-up the review process to enable the Birdfair / RSPB Research Fund for Endangered Birds to make a grant in support of his work.