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What prevents Struthio camelus and Dromaius novaehollandiae (Palaeognathae) from choking? A novel anatomical mechanism in ratites, the linguo-laryngeal apparatus

Martina R Crole* and John T Soley

Author Affiliations

Department of Anatomy and Physiology, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria, Private Bag X04, Onderstepoort, 0110, South Africa

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Frontiers in Zoology 2012, 9:11  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-9-11

Published: 31 May 2012



The avian glottis channels air from the oropharynx to the trachea and is situated on an elevated structure, the laryngeal mound. It is imperative that the glottis be protected and closed during swallowing, which in mammals is achieved by covering the glottis with the epiglottis, as well as by adduction of the arytenoid cartilages. An epiglottis, however, is reportedly absent in birds. Ratites such as Struthio camelus and Dromaius novaehollandiae possess a very wide glottis in comparison to other birds. The question therefore arises as to how these large birds avoid inhalation of ingesta through a wide glottis, with apparently little protection, particularly as their feeding method involves throwing the food over the glottis to land in the proximal esophagus.


In S. camelus when the glottis was closed and the tongue body retracted, the smooth tongue root became highly folded and the rostral portion of the laryngeal mound was encased by the pocket in the base of the ∩ − shaped tongue body. In this position the lingual papillae also hooked over the most rostral laryngeal projections. However, in D. novaehollandiae, retraction of the tongue body over the closed glottis resulted in the prominent, triangular tongue root sliding over the rostral portion of the laryngeal mound. In both S. camelus and D. novaehollandiae these actions resulted in the rostral portion of the laryngeal mound and weakest point of the adducted glottis being enclosed and stabilised.


Only after conducting a comparative study between these two birds using fresh specimens did it become clear how specific morphological peculiarities were perfectly specialised to assist in the closure and protection of the wide glottis. We identify, describe and propose a unique anatomical mechanism in ratites, which may functionally replace an epiglottis; the linguo-laryngeal apparatus.

Struthio camelus; Dromaius novaehollandiae; Glottis; Swallowing; Protection; Linguo-laryngeal apparatus