Wildlife TV

Learn interesting and funny plant and animal facts with videos and photos

Why do people think that ostriches bury their heads in the sand?

You may have found yourself in an argument with someone who is refusing to see sense and listen to you. You may have found yourself saying that they have buried their head in the sand.

It is a common metaphor that is a part of our cultural vocabulary; we use when people are being ignorant of facts, refusing to acknowledge advice or in denial about their situation. It has been commonly used in this way for centuries, since Roman times. But what is the origin of the phrase? It comes from the ancient observations of the behaviour of animals, namely, ostriches. So, why do ostriches bury their heads in the sand? Well the answer is that they don’t.

It has long been believed that ostriches will bury their heads in the sand to avoid predators; that they are so stupid as to believe that by concealing their heads they become invisible to predators. However, the truth is that this is a myth; there has never been any observation of an ostrich burying its head and yet for centuries the idea has stuck with us. There are, however, many behaviours which ostriches perform that might have given rise to this curious myth.

Ostrich Head and Neck (Struthio camelus)

Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are strange and fascinating birds; is it really true that they bury their heads in sand? If not, why do so many people think so? Photo Credits.

The common ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the world’s largest bird (currently alive). It is found across large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa and, historically, North Africa and Arabia. The first recorded occurrence of a belief that they bury their heads comes from Gaius Plinius Secundus, also known as Pliny The Elder (AD 23 – AD 79) a Roman scholar who invented the idea of the encyclopedia. Pliny spent most of his time observing and recording natural phenomena, including the behaviour or wild animals. He was a great author and philosopher who wrote volumes of information about the natural world, however, not all of it turned out to be entirely accurate. So from where did he get his ideas about ostriches? There are several potential explanations.

Gaius Plinius Secundus (aka Pliny the Elder)

Gaius Plinius Secundus (aka Pliny the Elder) was a Roman scholar who wrote about ostriches hiding their heads to evade detection. He was a great naturalist and even invented encyclopedias, but he was wrong on this one issue. Photo Credits.

Ostriches are extremely fast runners. They have long powerful legs that can accelerate them to up to 70 kilometres per hour; clearing 4 or 5 meters in a single bound. Quite rightly, they use their tremendous speed as their first resort when faced with a threat, however, sometimes, they might be trapped or injured or otherwise unable to escape. When they are not able to run, ostriches will lie down as flat as possible, stretching their necks out flat against the ground. Their necks and heads, incidentally, are often the colour of their habitat’s terrain (sandy brown/grey) and so at a casual glance, only their bodies would be visible, perhaps leading to the assumption that they have buried the rest.

Ostriches are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of things, however, they mostly feed on low level vegetable matter such as roots and fallen seeds, as well as invertebrates such as crickets. They also practice geophagia; picking up stones and pebbles from the ground and swallowing them, keeping them in their gizzards to help grind up and digest food. As a result of this diet, ostriches have their heads down at ground level for large amounts of time. Perhaps this has been misinterpreted and has helped propagate the idea of burying their heads.

Male Ostrich (Struthio camelus) Feeding

Ostriches (Struthio camelus) find most of their food on the ground and so have their heads down often. This may have given rise to the idea that they even bury their heads. Photo Credits.

It has also been suggested that ostriches will lower their heads to ground level in order to scan the horizon for threats. They may simply also lower their heads to ground level to be less obvious to prowling predators when they feel nervous. But the idea that they believe that they can conceal themselves completely by hiding their head is unfounded. Pliny the Elder suggested that they also stuck their heads into bushes to achieve the same effect. This notion is born from the idea that ostriches are ‘stupid‘ animals because they have such tiny brains: Ostriches have brains smaller than their own eyeballs (although they do have the largest eyes of any land animal)! In reality, animal cognition is not as simple as saying that a small brain equals a stupid animal. However, their small heads may have contributed to the myth; when their heads are down at ground level, they are so small that they can be difficult to see, this optical illusion may have led people to believe the animals’ heads were in fact buried.

Ostrich Chick (Struthio camelus)

Adult ostriches (Struthio camelus) grow to be the largest birds on the planet, but the start life as very cute chicks! Photo Credits.

Ultimately we have seen that an ancient misconception has turned into a common metaphor for human behaviour and it has been hard to separate the popular myth from the scientific truth ever since. There are many reasons that might explain why Pliny the Elder first wrote about the idea, but ultimately, we may never know where it came from originally.

Much love,

-Nick

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Jackie: The South African baboon soldier

I like to post on the Wildlife TV Facebook page interesting animal facts in the form of “Did you know..?” as often as possible. Today my little fact was the following:

“Did you know that.. A baboon called Jackie became a member of the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment during  World War I?”


As soon as I posted it I realised that I had to tell more about this story than just the above line.

Somehow this “little” fellow named Jackie does not have his wikipedia page or any relevant information about his life, adventures and achievements and I feel the need to share his crazy, but true, life story.

The story starts in August 1915, almost 100 years ago, in the Marr’s family farm in Villeria, Pretoria, South Africa.

Jackie the Chacma Baboon poses with Albert Marr in uniform for the South African Infantry during World War IJackie, the protagonist of our story, was a Chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) found by Albert Marr on his farm that soon became their beloved pet.

When World War I started many young men got enlisted and Albert was no exception. He got attested for service at Potchefstroom in the North West province of South Africa as private number 4927 for the newly formed 3rd (Transvaal) Regiment of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade  on the 25th August 1915. At the time he approached his superiors and requested Jackie to go with him and (surprisingly) got their permission.

Once enlisted Jackie was given a special uniform complete with buttons. a cap, regimental badges, a pay book and his own rations.

Although at first the other members of the regiment just ignored him, he soon became the official mascot of the 3rd Transvaal Regiment.

And if you think he was there just to eat and fool around you are very wrong!
When he would see a superior officer passing by he would stand to attention and even provide them with the correct salute.

He would also light cigarettes for his comrades in arms and was the best sentry around due to his great senses of hearing and smelling which allowed him to be able to detect any enemy long before any of his other army mates could even notice their approach.

And he wasn’t just a well taken care of pet, away from the actual battle, Jackie spent three years in the front line amongst the trenches of France and Flanders in Europe.

During the Senussi Campaign on 26 February 1916 in Egypt, Albert Marr got wounded on his shoulder by an enemy bullet and Jackie stayed beside him until the stretcher bearers arrived, licking the wound and doing what he could to comfort his friend.

Later on, in April 1918 both privates got injured in the Passchendale area in Belgium during a heavy fire.

As the explosions surrounded them, Jackie was seen trying to get some protection by building a little fortress of stones around himself. Unfortunately he didn’t manage to finish his little safe area and was hit by a chunk of shrapnel from a shell explosion nearby which also injured Albert. Jackie’s right leg got seriously wounded and was later amputated by Dr RN Woodsend. Both privates made a full recovery and shortly before the armistice Jackie got promoted to corporal and awarded a medal for valour.

Jackie, the Chacma Baboon poses for a photograph with his other army comrades on the South African Infantry in uniform and saluting during World War I

On the end of April Jackie was officially discharged at the Maitland Dispersal Camp, Cape Town, South Africa, while wearing on his arm a gold wound stripe and three blue service chevrons indicating three years of frontline service. He was also given a parchment discharge paper, a military pension and a Civil Employment Form for discharged soldiers.

After this crazy adventure Jackie returned to the Marr’s family farm where he lived until the 22nd May, 1921.  Albert Marr lived until the age of 84 and died in Pretoria in August 1973.

And here is the story of this peculiar Chacma Baboon that due to his curious life ended up as the only monkey to reach the rank of Private of the South African Infantry and fight in Egypt, Belgium and France during World War I.

Jackie the Chacma Baboon private from the South African Infantry greets a young girl in his uniform during World War I

Hope you liked this little known fact.

Até à próxima!

~Sofia.

 

If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Mammals category.
Previous Mammals entries:
Elephants avoid a full moon when being naughty
What perfume to wear on an African safari
Baby animals: How do they survive? Giraffe & Nile Crocodile
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