The Story of the Dwarf Rhea

by Rafael Nascimento

The family Rheidae is nowadays represented by two or three (according to different authors) species of rheas, large running flightless birds, similar to the African ostriches, but having three toes on each foot instead of two. The largest one, the common rhea Rhea americana, has five subspecies distributed from northeastern Brazil to eastern Argentina and including Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The other forms, earlier put in a separate genus, Pterocnemia, are R. pennata and R. tarapacensis (commonly known as Darwin’s rhea and Puna rhea, respectively). Darwin’s rhea, which helped the British naturalist in the elaboration of his theory of natural selection, lives in the Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia. The systematic situation of the Puna rhea (and its possible subspecies), which is found in the area where Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina meet, is not yet clear, and currently it is considered a distinct form based on some physical features, but more clarifying studies are necessary.

Beside these current forms and some fossil species, such as Opisthodactylus horacioperezi and Hinasuri nehensis, respectively from the Argentinian Miocene and Pliocene, another species was described in 1894 by the British Naturalist Richard Lydekker based on a small egg: Rhea nana – therefore representing a possible fourth rhea species living in historical times.

Richard Lydekker, ca 1900.

Richard Lydekker, ca 1900.

Following you can see the original text published in the journal Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London from 1894, with comments regarding this possible new species:

“Mr. R. Lydekker exhibited photographs and a model of a unique egg, the original of which had been obtained many years ago in Southern Patagonia, and now preserved in the Museum at La Plata. If not an abnormal specimen, it could not be assigned to any known species of bird.

When travelling in the district where the specimen was obtained, Dr. P. Moreno, Director of the Museum at La Plata, many years ago saw numbers of small Ratite birds, which he at first took to be small Rheas. By the natives, to whom they were well known, he was, however, assured that they were adult birds, allied to the Rheas. Desirous of confirming this information, Dr. Moreno applied to a friend acquainted with the district; who replied that not only did he well know the birds, but that he possessed an egg, that egg being the original specimen of which a model was now exhibited.

Assuming the egg to be a normal one, Mr. Lydekker was of opinion that, taken in connexion with the evidence of two independent witnesses who had been the birds, it pointed to the existence in Southern Patagonia of a small unknown Ratite bird more or less nearly allied to the Rheas.”

Illustration of Darwin's Rhea by John Gould, 1841.

Illustration of Darwin’s Rhea by John Gould, 1841.

Until today, however, no other similar egg or adult bird of a species different from the three already mentioned has been found. When we deal with potentially extinct species, only know by scarce reports or aberrant specimens, one must watch the data through a skeptical point of view. We need to be certain that those are not variations within the species or a witness confusion. The lack of extensive comparative material due to the date of the descriptions must also be taken into account, as well as the constant advancements in our understanding of science.

Normal egg of R. pennata, at Museum Wiesbaden (Germany). Photo by Klaus Rassinger/Gerhard Cammerer.

Normal egg of R. pennata, at Museum Wiesbaden (Germany). Photo by Klaus Rassinger/Gerhard Cammerer.

This egg is currently treated as an aberrant form of a Rhea pennata egg. The model cited by Lydekker, made of wax, is found in the Tring Natural History Museu, England.

del Hoyo, J., Collar, N. & Garcia, E.F.J. (2015) Puna Rhea (Rhea tarapacensis). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/467080 on 24 December 2015).

Folch, A., Jutglar, F., Garcia, E.F.J. & Boesman, P. (2015) Greater Rhea (Rhea americana). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/52399 on 24 December 2015).

Folch, A., Christie, D.A., Jutglar, F. & Garcia, E.F.J. (2015) Lesser Rhea (Rhea pennata). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/52400 on 24 December 2015).

Hume, J. P.; Walters, M. (2012) Extinct Birds. T & AD Poyser. Londres.

Knox, A. G.; Walters M. P. (1994) Extinct and Endangered Birds in the collections of The Natural History Museum. British Ornithologists’ Club Occasional Publications.

Lydekker, R. (1894) Exhibition of, and remarks upon, a photograph and model of an egg from Southern Patagonia in the La Plata Museum. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1894): 654.

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