Ostriches, the largest birds on Earth, possess unique characteristics and behaviors worth exploring. Even though there are only two extant species, they still display diversity. This article discusses the specific traits, behaviors, and diets of all types of ostriches.
Ostriches are the only living species belonging to the Struthio genus within the Struthioniformes order. These are part of the infra-class Palaeognathae, a diverse collection of ratites, flightless birds. This group also includes emus, rheas, cassowaries, kiwis, and the now-extinct elephant birds and moas.
The two species of ostrich are the common ostrich found in substantial regions of sub-Saharan Africa and the Somali ostrich, native to the Horn of Africa.
Thousands of years ago, the common ostrich inhabited the Arabian Peninsula. There were also extinct ostrich species spreading as far east as China and Mongolia.
In 1758, Carl Linnaeus first detailed Struthio as a genus. It initially contained the emu, rhea, and cassowary before separating them into their own genera. Meanwhile, the Somali ostrich is relatively newly classified as a distinct species.
Related Read: Ostrich Facts.
2 Types of Ostrich Species And Subspecies
1. Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
The common African ostrich is native to the arid, sparsely vegetated African regions. These flightless giants are identifiable by their bulky bodies, long legs, and slender necks, which make them the heaviest and largest birds.
If you visit its communal nest, you can also identify them with their eggs, which are the largest of any living land animal.
Weighing between 220-350 pounds and standing up to 9 feet tall, their wings are too small to carry their large bodies, but they've evolved into swift runners. They can sprint up to 40 mph.
Additionally, ostriches are didactyl. They are the only bird with two toes compared to the usual four of other avians. The larger inner toe, similar to a hoof, and the outer toe, without a nail, aid them during running.
Primarily eating plant materials, these omnivores can also eat insects, small reptiles, and lizards.
To survive the scorching habitats, ostrich feathers lack barbules, giving a fluffy appearance that helps them regulate body temperature. The feathers also serve as stabilizers to better maneuver while running.
Significant sexual dimorphism sees adult males sporting black and white plumage, while females and juveniles have duller gray-brown feathers.
Here are the official subspecies under common ostriches:
North African Ostrich (Struthio camelus camelus)
The North African Ostrich–or the red-necked ostrich or Barbary ostrich–stands up to 9 feet tall and weighs up to 340 pounds, making them the largest subspecies. They have black and white feathers in males and gray in females and young.
They survive on a diet of seeds, shrubs, grasses, small vertebrates, and fruits. It can also defend itself when threatened–an adult ostrich can kill a lion with a kick from its clawed feet.
Historically, these ostriches live in areas from Ethiopia to Mauritania, making them the most widespread subspecies.
Unfortunately, according to the Sahara Conservation Fund, the North African ostrich now only populates six of its original 18 countries. This severe decline has sparked concern that they are possibly critically endangered already.
South African Ostrich (Struthio camelus australis)
The South African Ostrich is also called the black-necked ostrich, Cape ostrich, or the Southern Ostrich. As the name suggests, these birds reside in Southern Africa, specifically Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe's semi-arid regions, grasslands, and savannas.
Unfortunately, it is extensively farmed in the Little Karoo area of Cape Province for its valuable meat, leather, and feathers.
Masai Ostrich (Struthio camelus massaicus)
The Masai Ostrich, or East African ostrich, inhabits the East African plains of Kenya and Tanzania. They have black and white plumage, and their neck and thigh skin turns pink during the mating season.
Arabian Ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus)
The Arabian Ostrich inhabited the Arabian Peninsula and the Near East. It had a smaller build than its relatives and was well adapted to survive in the harsh desert conditions.
The bird had a diverse diet, consuming leaves, seeds, fruits, insects, and small vertebrates.
Moreover, they used to lead a nomadic life, wandering across the desert landscapes, guided by the availability of food and environmental cues.
Unfortunately, the population of these endangered species began to decrease quickly due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss. The last known sighting was in 19662, marking its extinction.
2. Somali Ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes)
The Somali Ostrich, or Blue-necked Ostrich, officially became a separate species in 2014. As evidence gathered from mitochondrial DNA reveals, they diverged from their common ancestor around 3.6 to 4.1 million years ago.
Males typically measure up to 5 feet and weigh approximately 340 pounds. They have massive bare legs, a long bare neck, and a jet-black plumage contrasted by its striking white tail and small wings.
Compared to other ostrich subspecies, the Somali species can be identified by their blue-grey neck and thighs, pale grey-brown eyes, and darker male plumage. Female Somali Ostrich is similar to a female common ostrich except for its lighter eyes.
This species primarily inhabits the northeast regions of Africa. From Djibouti to Ethiopia, all the way down to Kenya and Somalia, these creatures remain a distinct symbol of the region.
However, these flightless birds are threatened by hunting pressure1, coveted for the eggs they produce, and the loss and degradation of their natural habitats. As a consequence, these bird species are now considered Vulnerable.
Due to limited data from recent taxonomic changes, further research is necessary to determine their current population status and trends.