Number of families 6 families of living birds
Number of genera, species 15 genera; 58 species
While most birds fly, there are several groups of birds that do not fly and have anatomical adaptations for a life on land. Some of the largest living birds make up the group of flightless birds generally called the ratites. Historically, some taxonomists have placed most of these large birds in the order Struthioniformes. Many recent taxonomists have divided the ratite group into separate orders and others into separate suborders or families. Most recently the Handbook of the Birds of the World has once again placed these birds in one large order, Struthioniformes, with several families: Struthionidae, the ostriches; Rheidae, the rhea; Casuariidae, the cassowaries; Dromaiidae, the emus; and Apterygidae, the kiwis. Additionally, the extinct moas, genus Dinornis (Dinornithidae), from New Zealand and the elephant birds, genus Aepyornis (Aepyornidae), from Madagascar and Africa were probably closely related and have been placed in separate orders or families as well. The tinamous, which are included with the Struthioniformes here, may now be considered to be in the group called Tinamiformes. Unlike ratites, tinamous have a keeled sternum and can fly, although weakly. Ratites are mostly located in central and southern Africa, central and southern South America, New Guinea and surrounding achipelagos, Australia, and New Zealand. Ratites were considered to be very ancient birds, more primitive than most other birds. Their anatomical features, once thought to be primitive, led early taxonomists to believe that ratites descended from birds prior to the development of flight.
However, if this were true, many of the anatomical features of these birds would not make much sense. The current interpretation is that these birds evolved from birds that could fly, but have developed a number of special adaptations for a non-
Early taxonomists considered ratite birds to be a good example of convergent evolution on all the southern continents, but as the theory of continental drift emerged and evolved into plate tectonics, it became much easier to assume that ratites arose from common ancestors which became isolated as the continents drifted apart. Most families have evolved in isolation from the others. The only exception to this are the cassowaries and emus, which evolved on the same continent, Australia, but separately in different habitats, so they did not evolve in direct competition with each other.
The emu, following the pattern of the ostrich and rhea, lives in more open grassland, while the cassowary lives primarily in dense rainforest. The debate on the origin and relationship of ratites continues, focusing on the exact level of relationship at the order or a higher level. Taxonomists generally agree that ratites are closer to each other and to tinamous than they are to any other bird groups. One question that has not been adequately answered is why these large flightless birds evolved in only the Southern Hemisphere. The answer to this question may well lie in the fact that major mammal predators evolved mostly in the Northern Hemisphere. bird in New Zealand, where the lack of large mammals may have allowed it to maintain its small size.
The large number of moa species that also developed in New Zealand, and follow the pattern of ostriches, rheas, and emus, fell prey to humans when they arrived, just as the elephant birds did in Madagascar. The evolution of ratites in the absence of large mammalian predators seems to make sense.
However, as with everything there is one major exception, the ostrich. Ostriches must have evolved in Africa with large mammal predators, but to compensate, they developed very large size, acute eyesight, and great speed. However, the ostrich may have evolved in very arid areas where the numbers and varieties of large preda-