The term ratite describes all the flightless birds and derives from the Latin word ratis, or raft. The birds in this grouping possess a sternum or breastbone that is flat, or shaped like a raft. This is in contrast to all other avian species, which are known as carinates. Carinates all have breastbones shaped like the keel (carina in Latin) of a boat. Though the ratite group is often described as large, flightless birds, this is partially incorrect. We commonly think of the ostrich (Struthio camelus) and emu (Dromaius no-vaehollandiae) as representative of the ratites, but the group also includes the much smaller rhea (Rhea americana, or greater rhea, and Pterocnemipennata, or Darwin's rhea), cassowary (single wattled and double wattled), and the most diminutive, the kiwi (Apteryx oweni, Apte haasti, and A. australis). Only the ostrich, emu (Fig. 6), and rhea are raised commercially.
Habitat. Fossilized ostrich remains have been discovered in Europe, Asia, and Africa. All of the modern ostriches are native to sub-Saharan Africa. Emus are native to Australia, and both species of rhea are native to South America.
Domestication. Ostrich farming began in earnest ca 1863 in South Africa. Farmers in that area selected the wild-caught birds for certain traits associated with feather quality. After the turn of the century, these birds were crossed with imports from northern and eastern Africa, resulting in an ostrich with good feather quality and egg-laying capabilities. Although the emu had long been utilized by the aboriginal people of Australia and the rhea
had served as a meat source in South America, it is generally believed that neither the emu nor the rhea had been the subject of organized domestication efforts before 1988.
History of Association with Humans. The fact that humans have made use of ostrich feathers since ancient times is evidenced by biblical record, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Greek writings. The efforts of South Africans as pioneers in ostrich farming are extensively documented. Though the South Africans were the first in the ostrich feather market, the Americans entered in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Ostrich farms in Pasadena and Los Angeles were southern California tourist attractions in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
With the collapse of the feather market in 1914, the South African industry experienced a great decline. No significant growth was observed until after 1960. The rise in environmental activism resulted in wildlife protection programs that prohibited the harvesting of rheas for meat in South America.
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