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Common Ostriches

COMMON OSTRICH (Struthio camelus)

Adapted from Wikipedia
Original image by Yathin S Krishnappa
Ostriches are large, flightless, terrestrial birds. The scientific name means "ostrich camel" which is frustrating because ostriches are not camels. But, they do live in the desert and some crazy motherfuckers ride them, so I can see where the comparison is apt.

Appearance

Ostriches are one of those animals that we accept as real only due to familiarity. They look as though the whole point of their evolutionary history was to make all who look upon them say "what the fuck?". Allow me to describe an ostrich to you: they stand at least 2.1 meters tall, and can weigh up to 157 kg (that's 6'11 and 346 lbs, respectively). Unlike normal, god-fearing birds, they cannot fly, which is a mercy because flying ostriches would be even more terrifying. They have long sexy legs that end in three toes equipped with talons that would make Dr. Alan Grant nod approvingly. And finally, they have a crazy sock puppet neck with a tiny head and eyes filled entirely with malice. I ask you - does that sound like a real animal? Or has the giant goose that chases me in my nightmares begun to manifest physically in the world? I'm giving them half a point because even though they scare me, they are too big to fly.

Points: 0.5/1

Behaviour

Ostrich brains have a highly developed cerebellum (the part of the brain that is mainly involved in motor function), and a very small, smooth cerebrum (the part of the brain that's involved in, well, pretty much everything else, including, but not limited to, thinking and decision making). This means that ostriches are good at moving their big crazy bodies around, but they're stupid as fuck. So, basically, they're big-ass chickens, which makes them less impressive overall.

Points: 0/1

Distribution

The common ostrich lives in the grasslands of Africa on either side of the equator. There are three subspecies: Struthio camelus camelus, the northern African ostrich, lives north of the equator; S. c. massaicus, the Masai ostrich, lives in eastern Africa; and S. c. australis, the southern African ostrich, lives in southern Africa and not Australia like what I thought from the name. With several different subspecies, I expected the common ostrich to live in a broader range of biomes, but it pretty much only lives in the grasslands and deserts. Fortunately for them, climate change is converting large swaths of the planet into desert so there will be lots of places for them to live post-apocalypse. If you're going to only live in one type of habitat, desert is probably the best one right now so all in all the ostriches made a good call.

Points: 1/1

Ecology

It's hot as shit in the desert and ostriches are huge, so they have long naked legs and necks in order to shed heat into the environment and stay cool. Their muscle distribution, joint organization, and foot structure are all about being able to run really fast so they can cover large areas to find water, and also to escape from predators. They also eat pretty much anything, from plants and seeds, to lizards and small mammals. Just about everything that's crazy looking about an ostrich is an adaptation to living in their environment. Good job.

Points: 1/1

Evolution

There used to be a whole shitload of different species and subspecies of ostrich found throughout Africa and Asia, including the Asian ostrich (Struthio asiaticus) which went extinct some 25,000 years ago possibly due to human activity, and the Arabic ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus) which went extinct some 50 years ago definitely due to human activity. Currently, there are only two extant ostrich species, S. camelus and the Somali ostrich S. molybdophanes, the former of which is doing okay, while the latter is considered vulnerable under IUCN. Ostriches are members of the ratites, a (debatably) paraphyletic group of paleognathid bird monsters including such real-life kaiju as rheas, emus, cassowaries, elephant birds, moas, and the totally out of place, adorable, fuzzy kiwis. So, while ostriches are intimidating, they're not nearly as horrific as their close relatives, the cassowaries. Obviously, they're not trying hard enough.

Points: 0/1

Life History

Ostrich eggs are the largest egg known to man, but the egg to adult size ratio is the smallest among birds. One would expect that, being large desert dwelling animals, ostriches would have a K-selection life history strategy (that is, investing a lot of energy in few offspring, and having low infant mortality), like elephants or rhinos. Instead, they invest relatively little energy in a lot of eggs, and have just off the charts infant mortality, with most of their eggs and chicks succumbing to predation before they reach maturity (this is called r-selection in case you're wondering). It's somewhat unusual for larger animals to employ that life history strategy, but animals that do tend to fare better under environmental stress, so this is another reason that ostriches might come out on top while other, more sensitive animals get taken out by climate change.

Points: 1/1

Interaction with Humans

There is evidence that humans have been using ostrich eggs for at least 60,000 years based on engraved ostrich shells found in South Africa. Realistically, humans have probably been using ostrich meat, feathers, and shells for almost as long as there have been humans, since humans originate in roughly the same place as ostriches, and they're a good, multipurpose animal. They've been depicted in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Roman, and Chinese artwork, an acknowledgement of their huge importance to humans over the millennia. Today, ostriches are farmed on an industrial scale for meat, leather, feathers, eggs, and tourism. Ostrich farming, along with their huge spatial distribution and genetically distinct sub-species, is one of the reasons ostriches might not actually go tits up in the upcoming Anthropocene extinction event, so there's that. Ostriches are also known to occasionally kill people by disemboweling them with their massive claws, meaning there's a chance that ostriches will rise up, cast off the shackles of human oppression, and succeed man as the dominant biped on the planet. Ostriches are a species whose history and future are truly interwoven with those of humans for better or for worse.

Points: 1/1

Final Score: 4.5/7
Ostriches are not bad at all, and surprisingly cool in a lot of ways

References / Further Reading

  • Associated Press. 2000. Man killed in ostrich attack
  • Baker AJ, Haddrath O, McPherson JD, Cloutier A. 2014. Genomic support for a moa-tinamou clade and adaptive morphological convergence in flightless ratites. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 31(7): 1686-1696
  • IUCN Redlist: Common Ostrich
  • IUCN Redlist: Somali Ostrich
  • Jan S, Rai N, Kumar G, Pruthi PA, Thangaraj K, Bajpai S, Pruthi V. 2017. Ancient DNA reveals late Pleistocene existence of ostriches in Indian sub-continent. PLoS One. 12(3): e0164823 Open Access
  • National Geographic: Ostriches
  • Peng K, Feng Y, Zhang G, Liu H, Song H. 2010. Anatomical study of the brain of the African ostrich. Turkish Journal of Veterinary Animal Science. 34(3): 235-241
  • Phillips PK, Sanborn AF. 1994. An infrared, thermographic study of surface temperature in three ratites: ostrich, emu, and double-wattled cassowary. Journal of Thermal Biology. 19(6): 423-430
  • Schaller NU, Herkner B, Villa R, Aerts P. 2009. The intertarsal joint of the ostrich (Struthio camelus): anatomical examination and function of passive structures in locomotion. Journal of Anatomy. 214(6): 830-847
  • Schaller NU, D'Aout K, Villa R, Herkner B, Aerts P. 2011. Toe function and dynamic pressure distribution in ostrich locomotion. Journal of Experimental Biology. 214(7): 1123-1130
  • Texier PJ, Porraz G, Parkington J, Rigaud JP, Poggenpoel C, Miller C, Tribolo C, Vartwright C, Coudenneau A, Klein R, Steele T, Verna C. 2010. A Howiesons Poort tradition of engraving ostrich eggshell containers dated to 60,000 years ago at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa. PNAS USA. 107(14): 6180-6185

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