Cassowary (genus Casuarius)

I recently made a quiz on sporcle.com (an excellent site on which to waste time) that involved naming animals that begin with the letter ‘C’ from a picture of the animal. It’s a fun quiz, and you can play it here: http://www.sporcle.com/games/lharpo42/c-animals-by-picture. One of the animals on the quiz is a cassowary, which I knew was a bird but that was about it. So I decided to do some research and share what I learned with you, dear readers!

A pretty awesome looking cassowary, with fancy colours and a nice casque.

A pretty awesome looking cassowary, with fancy colours and a nice casque.

Cassowaries are strange looking birds; in my opinion they look kinda like dinosaurs. It’s that crest on their head, I think. The cassowary is a ratite, which basically just means large flightless birds (like emus and ostriches). They live in New Guinea and northern Australia, inhabiting the topical forests of these regions. There are three species of cassowary: the southern cassowary (which is the most common), the dwarf cassowary, and the northern cassowary.

The southern cassowary is the largest species, and is the second heaviest and third tallest bird in the world (after ostriches and emus). The sexes seem to be mixed up in this animal – unlike most birds females are bigger and more brightly coloured, and grow up to 2 meters high. One of the defining features of the cassowary is the horny casque on top of their heads. While there are many theories as to its function, no definite purpose for the casque has been identified. Some think the casque is simply a secondary sexual characteristic, used to attract mates, while others think it could be used for dominance disputes. Other proposed uses include a tool to push aside underbrush, or to move leaf litter when foraging. Cassowaries do run through the forest with their heads lowered, and sometimes crash into trees (hilarious, right?), so the casque may protect them from injury. As well, cassowaries eat ripe fruit that has fallen from trees, and so spend a large amount of time under trees with heavily ripe fruit. The casque could protect them from falling fruit. Still other functions could be in sound reception, or thermoregulation.

A cassowary chick. They don't look much like their parents, do they?

A cassowary chick. They don’t look much like their parents, do they?

Cassowaries are solitary for most of the time, only coming together to breed. Indeed, these birds are extremely shy and are very difficult to find in the wild. The sex roles are also somewhat reversed during breeding – males defend a small territory while females have territories that span multiple males’. I don’t know how common this is in birds, but in mammals it’s definitely usually the opposite, with males having larger home ranges that overlap numerous females’ territories. One thing that is definitely backwards in cassowaries is that the females advertise their readiness to mate, sending out a vibration that attracts the male. Female cassowaries also hate other females, while males are tolerant of both sexes. Egg care is solely the duty of the male, as after laying the female runs off to have fun with other males. The male incubates the eggs and cares for the chicks until they are nine months old. Talk about hard work!

Just. Look. At. That. Toe. Scary!

Just. Look. At. That. Toe. Scary!

Before I finish this post, I’d like to re-emphasize how dangerous of a place Australia is. I went over some basics in my post about Box Jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri), but would like to add that the cassowary is one of the most dangerous birds in the world (named the most dangerous by the Guinness book of Records in 2007). They are capable of leaping 1.5m from a standstill, and will kick at the end of a jump to severely injure anything threatening it. Oh yeah, they also have 12cm long claw on their inner toe, which acts like a dagger to slice through things. Like your carotenoid artery. Avoid Australia at all costs!

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