People say a “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, but try masturbating a two metre tall, 120 kilogram male ostrich with powerful legs and toenails and you’ve got a challenge on your hands.
Researchers in the School of Animal Biology at The University of Western Australia (UWA) have achieved a world-first by developing animal and human-friendly methods for semen collection and artificial insemination in ostriches.
Dr Irek Malecki, co-supervisor of the project, said the technique, which involved using a dummy female for collecting ostrich ejaculates, evolved out of animal behaviour observations, where captive reared birds become imprinted and perceived humans as “sexy” and worthy of their sexual display.
To mate, male ostriches rest a leg on their partner, which led to the development of a dummy female with an artificial cloaca (reproductive/excretory orifice) as a sperm receptacle.
Emus, however, require no such balancing and can ejaculate into the artificial cloaca held by a person while crouching on the ground and ‘resting’ on the person’s arm and back .
Emus and ostriches are members of the ratite family, a diverse group of large, flightless birds.
A graduate of the Faculty of Animal Husbandry, Academy of Agriculture, Lublin, Poland, Dr Malecki migrated to Australia in 1989 and was awarded a UWA/CSIRO scholarship for PhD studies on the reproductive physiology of emus.
After completing his PhD in 1997, he continued his research at UWA on ratite reproductive biology, focussing on developing semen collection, artificial insemination, fertility and hatchability technologies for the emu and ostrich industries.
His research was supported by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC).
“Emu and ostrich fertility is now better understood and we can objectively assess fertility and diagnose fertility problems for individuals or flocks,” Dr Malecki said.
“We’ve also developed tests for sperm function in vitro to optimise diluents and conditions for storage and cryopreservation of emu and ostrich sperm. Our technologies are ready for adoption by the emu and ostrich industries.”
A 2002 collaboration with African researchers on ostrich fertility led to the important and unexpected finding that part of reproductive waste in females is caused by early embryo mortality, rather than infertility.
Dr Malecki said their research demonstrated the need for greater understanding of early embryo viability, the physiological zero temperature at which no development occurs and also the relationship of the blastoderm stage (formed by the cleavage of the fertilised egg) to embryo development, hatchability and chick development.
In Australia, ostriches are bred for skin and meat and emus for meat, skin and oil.
Arthur Pederick of Wagin, President of the Emu Farmers’ Association of WA and Federal Secretary-Treasurer of the Emu Industry Federation of Australia said Dr Malecki’s work would be immensely important to the industry once research had categorised the anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and anaesthetic qualities of the oil, as this would generate demand for product and create new markets.
“It’s been a boom and bust industry and once there were more than 1000 registered emu farms in Australia, but now we’re down to 50,” Mr Pederick said.
“Most of the industry is in NSW, Victoria and SA because they have abattoirs to process the birds, but in WA there is no dedicated abattoir and we don’t presently have the numbers to justify one.
“Emus have dark meat, which tastes similar to beef and is high in iron and low in fat. There are many positive aspects to emu products and when we have a better consumer base, Dr Malecki’s work will be invaluable in specifically breeding for quality oil and meat producing birds.
“The technologies he has developed will save the industry around 10 years of work,” Mr Pederick said.
This view is echoed by Michael Hastings, President of the Australian Ostrich Association and a former Nuffield Scholar, who studied ostrich genetics and the potential role of a central international ostrich genetic improvement centre.
He describes Dr Malecki’s work as “pioneering”, as it provided tools to test genetics across a range of hens to speed up genetic gains and select lines with positive traits.
Mr Hastings owns and manages two properties at Winchelsea in south-western Victoria. The main enterprise produces 13,000 to 15,000 ostrich eggs per year and supplies chicks to other Australian farmers and regularly exports its genetics around the world.
“We must be competitive and the road for the ratite industry is to use genetics for productivity gains so that we can be more efficient than countries with cheaper labour and subsidised feed,” he said.
“In my ostrich flock superior genetics has increased meat yield by two to three kilograms per bird and skin by more than 30 square centimetres, while grow-out time has reduced by three to four months.”
Mr Hastings said it was now possible to produce “unique” 95 kilogram birds in 10 months, where it previously took 14 months to produce a 90 kilogram bird.
“There is potentially a good future for the ostrich industry in Australia. Our products are among the best in the world and our skins are targeted by top tanneries which supply Italian fashion houses.”