Three subspecies recognized:
malherbii (Gray 1845)
Occurs in eastern Panama and northern Colombia
Similar to nominate melanoleucos, but differs by gray (not ivory) bill color, and "more extensive red around the eyes and more cinnamon-buff color of the underparts" (Short 1982).
melanoleucos (Gmelin 1788); type locality Surinam
Occurs from eastern Colombia south to Bolivia, and east to central Brazil
cearae (Cory 1915); type locality Juá, near Iguatú, Ceará, Brazil
Occurs in northeastern Brazil.
Similar to melanoleucos, but smaller (about 11% smaller), with a proportinately shorter tail (Short 1982). Woodpeckers of the vast region extending from Bolivia, Paraguay and northern Argentina north to Mato Grosso and Goias are intermediate between melanoleucos and cearae; these birds sometimes are recognized as a fourth subspecies (e.g. Short 1975), but these birds "bear no distinctive features and are highly variable", and so do not merit recognition as a separate subspecies (Short 1972).