Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Wednesday 4 January 2023


Vintage illustration from 1792 of a male specimen of Struthio camelus, the African ostrich – but is this species alive and well and living in Australia too? (public domain)

During summer 1970, dingo hunter Peter Muir found and photographed some strange two-toed tracks in the spinifex (a spiny-seed grass) desert area near Laverton, Western Australia. Local aboriginals claimed that they were from an ogre-like monster – the tjangara or spinifex man.

Emu (© Donald Hobern/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

Scientists initially assumed that these were merely tracks of the common Australian emu Dromaius novaehollandiae, but swiftly retracted this view – because emus leave three-toed versions. Only one known creature produces two-toed tracks like those at Laverton – Struthio camelus, the African ostrich!

Close-up of ostrich foot showing its fundamentally two-toed format – its very small third toe is too short to leave any noticeable impression in footprints (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Yet the concept of ostriches living wild in Australia is by no means ludicrous – far from it. Small populations of feral (run-wild) ostriches still persist north of Adelaide, South Australia, for instance, descended from specimens released by ostrich farmers after World War I, when the feather market collapsed.

Ostriches were formerly maintained in captivity on Australian farms for their once highly-valued plumes (© Dr Karl Shuker)

As the ostrich is a desert-hardy bird that can travel great distances in short periods of time, in 1971 veteran American zoologist and cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson suggested in a short Pursuit article that some ex-farm specimens may not only have survived and bred but also have discreetly extended their range across the intervening desertlands into Western Australia, and thence to Laverton.  (Incidentally, it is known that ostriches were released in Western Australia before 1912, but these 'officially' died out without establishing a population.)

Female ostrich (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This would offer a plausible explanation for the mystery of the two-toed tracks and their unseen originator(s) – aptly dubbed by Australian wags 'the abominable spinifex man'. Indeed, if the Laverton environs were not so sparsely populated, the existence of ostriches there may have been confirmed by now.

Vintage curio photograph of an ostrich-drawn cart (public domain)

This ShukerNature article is excerpted from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003).


  1. First comment of 2023? I remember reading about this in your book. An important thing to consider is that to an inexperienced observer, an ostrich from a distance may be mistaken for an emu, so perhaps there have been many sightings that just aren't recorded.

    1. I sometimes have a difficult time keeping track of different ratites and how to tell them apart as well.

  2. Tjangara is another Australian cryptid I have never heard of until now, but I am familiar with the feral populations of ostriches in the country - I remember them frequently mentioned as examples of all the invasive species wreaking havoc on ecosystems. (along with cane toads, rabbits and the ilk)

  3. Note that on firm substrate emus sometimes leave apparently two-toed footprints, as the inner toe fails to leave an impression. See this paper:

    1. Thanks very much for posting this interesting reference. Of course, the spinifex area where the two-toed prints have been reported is desert, i.e. sandy, not firm, substrate, so one would expect emu tracks to show all three toes.

  4. Peter Jesser comment - some people fsrm ostriches in Australia and some of them inevitably escape. My brother once saw one as exotic road kill near Charters Towers in Queensland. That is a long way from WA but there are probably other escapees roaming the bush.

  5. I wonder if it is known ,for certain, the genetic origin of the ostriches that were released in 1912. If they were of African stock or( I had a interesting thought); If they were of the ,recently extinct, Arabian ostrich.