Rheas

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Rheas

Rheas are large flightless birds that lack a keel in their sternum bone. They are also called ratites, and are a genus under the order Rheiformes, endemic to South America, distantly related to the emu and ostrich.

Most taxonomic authorities recognise two extant species: the American or greater rhea (Rhea Americana) and the lesser or Darwin’s rhea (Rhea pennata). The IUCN recognises the puna rhea (Rhea tarapacensis) as a separate species.

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The IUCN currently rates Darwin’s rheas as Least Concern, while the puna and greater rheas as Near-Threatened in their native ranges.

Table of Contents

Scientific classification

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderRheiformes
FamilyRheidae
GenusRhea

Species classification

Extant species

SpeciesSubspeciesDistribution
Greater rhea (Rhea americana)R. a. americana (cerrados and caatinga of eastern and central Brazil).
R. a. intermedia (Uruguay and southeastern Brazil in Rio Grande do Sul).
R. a. nobilis (east of Rio Paraguay and eastern Paraguay).
R. a. araneipes (Mato Grosso in Brazil and chaco of Paraguay to Bolivia).
R. a. albescens (plains of Argentina south of Rio Negro).
Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay
Darwin’s rhea or lesser rhea (Rhea pennata)R. p. garleppi (southwestern Bolivia, southeastern Peru, and northwestern Argentina).
R. p. tarapacensis (northern Chile from Atacama to Tarapacá).
R. p. pennata (southern Argentina and southern Chile).
Altiplano and Patagonia in South America

Extinct species

  • †R. fossilis 
  • †R. mesopotamica
  • †R. pampeana
  • †R. subpampeana

Characteristics

Rheas are large, flightless birds, with long legs, long neck, and grey-brown plumage, similar to the ostrich. Large males of the species R.

Americana can reach 67 in (170 cm) tall at the head, 39 in (100 cm) at the back, and can weigh up to 88 lb (40 kg).

The lesser/Darwin’s rhea is somewhat smaller as they are only 39 in (100 cm) tall at the back. The wings of a rhea measure up to 8.2 ft (250 cm), which are spread while running, to act like sails (for more speed).

Distinct from most birds, rheas possess only three toes. Their tarsus has 18 – 22 horizontal plates on the front of it.

Reproduction

Rheas practice polygamy, with males courting 2 to 12 females. After mating, the males show a form of paternal care by building a nest, in which all his partners lay their eggs in turn.

The male incubates from 10 – 60 eggs. The male sacrifices a few eggs as a decoy to predators, preventing them from getting to the nest.

The paternal male may use a subordinate male to incubate the eggs, while he searches for another harem to build a second nest.

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The chicks hatch within 2160 minutes (36 hours) of each other. The females show no form of maternal care and move on to mate with other males.

While caring for or protecting the young, the male will charge at any threat that approaches the chicks, including humans and female rheas.

The young reach full size in about 6 months but do not breed until they reach 2 years of age.

Diet

During most of their life, rheas are vegetarians and prefer broad-leafed plants, but they also eat roots, seeds, and fruits, as well as grasshoppers, rodents, and small reptiles.

After birth, the young rheas (chicks) feed on only insects for the first few days. Outside the mating season, they gather in flocks and feed cattle and deer.

Behaviour

Rheas are silent birds, with the exception of a male seeking a mate or when they are chicks. During the mating season, the male tries to attract females by calling (a loud booming noise).

While calling, they will lift the front part of their body, ruffle their plumage, and keep their neck stiff. They will then spread and raise their wings and run short distances.

During the non-mating season, they may form flocks between 20 – 25 birds, although the lesser rhea (Rhea pennata) forms smaller flocks than this.

Habitat and distribution

Rheas are native to South America only and are limited within the continent to Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru.

Both species prefer open land as they are grassland birds. The greater rheas live in pampas, open grasslands, and Chaco woodlands. They usually breed near water and prefer lowlands, seldom going above 4,900 ft (1,500 metres).

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However, the lesser rhea will inhabit most grassland, shrubland, even desert salt puna up to 14,800 ft (4,500 metres).

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