How many subspecies does the Scarlet Macaw have?

February 3rd, 2015 | by LubosTomiska
How many subspecies does the Scarlet Macaw have?

We can distinguish two subspecies in the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) – Ara macao cyanoptera and Ara macao macao. Breeders often discuss about classification of  bred individuals and that’s why we have decided to set up a summary which shows available sources of information and deals with the validity of both subspecies.

In 1994, there was a study published in journal Ornitologia Neotropical. In this article David A. Wiedenfeld describes the new Scarlet Macaw subspecies Ara macao cyanoptera officially. Wiedenfeld is a field ornithologist who has spent several years with studying of those birds. He is also devoted to the conservation project of this species and that’s partly the reason why he tried to classify those birds as single taxon. Because then you can protect them better. According to his findings, this subspecies can be distinguished visually and geographically as well.



Individuals from Mexico with intensive yellow and blue coloration without any green. (c) Tony Silva


„To study geographic variation in the Scarlet Macaw, I examined 31 specimens (16 O’ , 14 9, one unsexed) of wild-taken birds with known collecting localities. The specimens are from across most of the range of the species and represent a fair proportion of wild-taken specimens in North American collections. From these specimens it is apparent that the plumage variation mentioned above does indeed have a geographic basis. Linnaeus’s description of the species was based on a specimen from “South America”, probably from Pernambuco, Brazil (Ridgway 1916),“ Wiedenfeld (1994) described his experiment.

Difference in coloration between subspecies macao and cyanoptera

Wiedenfeld considers both subspecies as distinct and according to his findings, birds can be well distinguished in coloration: „Ara macao cyanoptera is separable from Ara macao macao by having some or most yellow wing coverts tipped in blue with no green band separating the yellow and blue parts of the feather. In Ara macao macao, all yellow feathers with blue tips have a green band separating the yellow and blue. Although this distinction seems minor, the overall appearance of the wing of Ara macao cyanoptera is of having a red, blue, and yellow wing, with little or no green. In contrast, individuals of nominate Ara macao macao have small to substantial amounts of green on the wing.“



Characteristic green coloration in Ara macao macao. (c) @Doug88888. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Unported license.


We also have asked other ornithologists about their opinion of recognizing subspecies in the Scarlet Macaw. Miguel Angel Gomez Garza – another field worker who studies parrot species in Central and South America – gave us this comment:

„By having, originally, a wide geographical distribution in the American continent, it is understandable that there is a wide variability of this species. There is a tendency for individuals that are more to the north of Mexico and Central America to have a slightly larger size, as with northern populations of other species of parrots. This feature and the tendency of northern individuals to loose green color on the yellow coverts that are present in the birds from South America, is considered to separate them subspecifically.  In my opinion, the overlapping of measures is common, so we can not generalize. On the other hand, I have reviewed about 100 confiscated individuals from Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala, of which about 50 percent have the green band or at least green spots on the distal coverts. Also, the presence of green, blue and yellow is too variable, even in captive born chicks of the same pure pair of northern individuals (same clutch). Due to all of this, I prefer to consider this species as monotypic, according to Linnaeus’ original description in 1758. In other words, individuals from Mexico and Central America can be larger (not always), and they can not show the green band on the wings (not always).”



There are several studies describing the genom of the Scarlet Macaw. Here you can see the map illustrating geographic distribution of mitochondrial haplogroups. The arrow points to the subspecies boundary between Nicaragua and Costa Rica (Schmidt & Amato).


Tony Silva believes that there is an enormous variation in coloration and size of the Scarlet Macaw.  „Ara macao macao displays a lot of variation in the red color intensity and size. The birds from Colombia are just a little bigger than Ara severus. The only recognized subspecies is A.m. cyanoptera, which has blue on the wings rather than green: green is found in the nominate form from South America. Yellow coloration of wings varies depending on region and also populations. ”

Subspecies differ also in morphological traits

Apart from the different coloration, we can distinguish both subspecies by the wing length, as Wiedenfeld (1994) states in the article: „Wing length variation from about 8 o to 12 o N. Latitude appears to form a steep cline between Ara macao cyanoptera and A. m. macao of South America. Likewise, the presence of green bands between the yellow and blue on wing coverts seems to intergrade in southern Middle America, the same area where the wing-length trend is the steepest. This suggests gene flow between Ara macao macao and A. m. cyanoptera, forming a zone of intergradation in southern Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica.“



Wiedenfeld (1994) found a significant difference in wing length between both subspecies.


Molecular genetics

As you are not sure about the subspecies of your Scarlet Macaw and you really want to find it out, you can make the DNA analysis. There are researchers from the American Museum of Nature and Texas A & M who have sequenced the genes and are able to differentiate.



David A. Wiedenfeld, 1994. A new subspecies of Scarlet Macaw and its status and conservation. Ornitologia Neotropical 5: 99-104


Title photo: (c) César Rincón. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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