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Can Ostriches Fly: How Did Ostriches Evolve But Remained Flightless Birds?

The flightless ostrich is an African native and is one of the largest birds in the world. So, if you are a person who is interested in animal curiosities, then you probably wondered more than once why you’ve never seen an ostrich fly even though it has wings. From a scientific point of view, it is fascinating to understand how evolution shaped their wings.

Well, as you probably already guessed, their massive body is indeed one of the reasons. However, this is not all. Then why are ostriches classified as birds that cannot fly? In this article, you will learn everything about these large flightless animals, including information regarding their habitat, eating habits, and more. So, let’s begin!

How Did Ostriches Evolve But Remained Flightless Birds?

The first thing you should know is that ostriches are among the several creatures of the ratite bird family. This family includes species such as rheas, kiwis, cassowaries, and emus. Most often than not, this bird group contains flightless feathered individuals. The only exceptions are some small species of birds.

Starting Point – Darwin Theory

The first thing you should understand is that the ostriches’ bodies are directly linked to the mass destruction of the dinosaur population. Before calling me crazy, I want to tell you the reasons why this theory is still valid. Think about it for a second. So, when dinosaurs ruled the world, they basically took the whole area, making it their living environment. But with their extinction, they left a lot of free space to be repopulated.

Because of this whole new free land, many aerial animals, primarily birds, started adjusting their bodies to terrestrial life. And one of these birds were, of course, ostriches. As time passed and evolution followed its natural path, the ostrich birds gained a lot of weight and started to modify their bodies based on the new life.

Naturally, when they grew to the size they are now, they lost the capacity to fly.

The last thing I want to highlight here is that ostriches don’t have in-land ancestors, as many fail to believe. This is a vast misconception, but you should forget about it. These massive birds are directly connected to prehistoric creatures, as you will soon discover.

But first, let’s look at their anatomy.

Why Don’t Ostriches Fly? Anatomical Facts

Just like most ratites, ostriches cannot fly due to some anatomical differences when compared to the other birds. Simply put, ostriches lack a very fundamental part of the sternum known as the breastbone. The reason why it’s so important is that the keel part connects the solid pectoral muscles, which are directly responsible for the flying abilities.

But have you really looked at an ostrich’s body? If so, then you couldn’t miss noticing how fragile and tiny their wings are compared to their massive bodies.

So what was the evolutionary purpose of this disproportion?

Scientists do not precisely explain why ostriches developed to be flightless. They simply add them in the same category as the rest of the massive animals – they had giant ancestors and no natural predators to hunt them down. But let’s focus a bit on this part.

It is believed that ostriches are directly related to a huge creature called the elephant bird, which lived right after the dinosaurs’ extinction but before the evolution of mammals. So there they were, all alone in the green fields, with no one to turn them into prey. Naturally, since they had no reason to struggle for survival, they developed large bodies and small wings, turning them into the flightless birds we know today.

Now, you may wonder why they didn’t evolve back into being flying birds when predators started to appear. Well, they did evolve but differently. Ostriches run, and they are very fast.

Basically, they use their powerful leg muscles to compensate for their inability to fly.

Now the reason why their evolution turned out to be like this is the regulatory DNA. This part of their DNA is responsible for when and where genes have been turned off. Furthermore, researchers state that evolutionary changes happen due to mutations in protein-making genes (1).

Did Ostriches Ever Fly?

No, technically, they did not. The ostriches we know have always been significant, flightless birds, as researchers have discovered so far. Nevertheless, based on evolutionary science (2) and the concept of regulatory DNA, ostriches might have some relatives that probably flew.

Scientists discovered a flightless ancestor of all ostriches and other ratites in the Cretaceous period. This predecessor was called Gondwana. But when the supercontinent broke up, the ratites family moved to different continents. The end result was the evolution into the flightless birds population today, such as emus, kiwis, ostriches, and so on.

However, in-depth discoveries continue to bring up new facts to the light. Remember the elephant bird I was telling you about earlier? DNA extracted from the remains of this creature found in Madagascar links them to the ostriches. But their closest relative turned out to be not these massive creatures but the small and fragile kiwi bird.

DNA Story Of Ostriches

As you can imagine, some scientists still have questions regarding ostriches’ flying inability. Therefore, they continue to analyze their DNA pattern, along with the evolutionary changes of all ratites.

One of the questions that keep coming around is why are most ratites flightless, with the teeny-tiny tinamous being the exception?

The primary speculation was that their ancestors lost the ability to fly. But, we now know for a fact that this theory is wrong since there we have clear proof of the ostrich’s direct connection to elephant birds.

Instead, it is more likely that the regulatory DNA is indeed the one that turned off the ability of these birds to fly.

Take the “use it or lose it” theory to simplify things. Alike, ostriches, kiwis, emus, and many other flightless birds forgot how to fly and lost this ability. And just like an atrophied muscle, their wings shrank in size in time.

Fascinating Facts About Ostriches

Before wrapping the matter up, there are some very interesting facts about ostriches that I am sure you will love to read. Here goes:

Ostriches can swim

Although swimming is quite unusual for these birds, ostriches indeed swim even though they can’t fly. However, they can keep themselves on the water surface and use their long legs to move.

Ostriches can glide

Ostriches do not fly, and this is a fact. However, these flightless birds have outstanding running skills.

When it reaches a speed of 50 miles per hour, ostriches look like they are flying. However, they cannot take to the air. Ostriches have this long and elegant stride that helps them run fast to any distance. Once an ostrich is “in a rush” and runs fast, its wings will flap, and they might appear like gliding through the air.

Diet

Ostriches are primarily herbivorous; however, they sometimes eat insects or small lizards.

Wings

Although they do not use their wings for flying, ostriches rely on these body parts for keeping their balance when running. Furthermore, they will also use their wings to display courtship during the mating period.

Stomach

Ostriches have multiple stomachs, which they separately use to secrete their gastric juices and mechanical functions.

Renal System

Unlike many other birds, ostriches secrete urine separately from feces.

Predators

Ostriches do not have many natural enemies considering their massive and powerful bodies. The only two predators are cheetahs and lions. Their tactic is sneaking up on the adult birds and attacking them. Luckily, ostriches have long and powerful legs to outrun their enemies. Not only can they reach 50 miles per hour, but they can also keep a steady rate of 31 miles per hour.

Some may add a third enemy to the list of predators, but this one only attacks their eggs. I am referring to the Egyptian vulture.

Feathers

The plumage is soft and fluffy and can protect them from cold nights and hard winters. Unlike many other birds, ostriches lack the particular glands that make their feathers waterproof.

Defense mechanism

A very interesting evolutionary aspect is represented by their claws. The flightless birds have developed claws at the end of their fingers to protect themselves from possible predators.

Over time, ostriches have developed an entire defense system to protect themselves from possible enemies. For instance, the male ostriches have dark feathers to camouflage during the night.

On the other hand, females have a lighter brown plumage that blends perfectly with the environment. So male will incubate the eggs at night, while females will take this responsibility during the day.

Breeding

Ostriches lay the biggest eggs known to men. For instance, an ostrich egg is the equivalent of two dozen chicken eggs. A female ostrich will lay around 15 eggs per month.

Last Thoughts

Ostriches cannot fly, and plenty of scientific reasons explain this fact. These massive, flightless birds use their wings only for mating purposes, shade chicks, cover the naked skin, maintain equilibrium, and change direction while running.

However, considering their powerful body and the few enemies they have, do ostriches miss out on much by not flying?

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