Sunday, May 06, 2007

Mama Cass

Despite my pleas for ideas, no one sent in any suggestions. My girlfriend, who wrote the Andean Condor post, wanted another one on birds, and mentioned an animal that is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous animals to keep in captivity. I like to refer to them as the “Angry Technicolor Ostrich.”
Image from Australian Wildlife Conservancy
Image from Australian Wildlife Conservancy

The Sothern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)1 is listed as vulnerable on the Australian endangered species list. They belong to the group of birds called Ratites, which also include ostriches, emus, rheas, and kiwis. None of them have the keel present in flighted birds, but have developed into strong runners.

They are strong kickers too. All of the ratites defend themselves with their sharp claws on their strong legs. Cassowaries are especially infamous for this. I had heard that they are able to disembowel a person, but I’m having problems finding any reliable source that confirms this. Not that they would eat anyone; they’re technically frugivores, and are a useful species for spreading the seeds of rainforest plants.

The name “Cassowary” comes from the Papuan word for the bird, which means “Horned Head.” The horn to which this name refers is also known as a casque. The purpose of the casque is only guessed at, with hypotheses ranging from pushing through rainforest foliage to establishing dominance. I haven’t seen anybody talking about why they’re bright blue with huge wattles, though.

Cassowaries are solitary animals, though, when they do get together, the males are subordinate to the females, since they’re smaller. The females lay several clutches of eggs, and then they leave. The males incubate the eggs and take care of the young, which look like zebra/leopard/goslings, and are fairly annoyingly cute.

As rainforest animals, the major threat comes in the form of habitat destruction for agricultural and developmental purposes. This also leads to fragmented populations, which has genetic diversity implications. Traffic accidents are becoming more frequent, and nobody wants to run into a four-foot tall, 130-pound bird with a helmeted head. The Australian government has conservation efforts in place, including education efforts

1The Northern Cassowary (C. unappendiculatus) is also listed as vulnerable, but there isn’t much difference between the species, so I just picked one.


Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly, the call of the cassowary was used to create the sounds of some of the dinosaurs in the "Jurassic Park" movies!

As for future suggestions, how about the white uakari? I've got a picture of one above my desk with a note that says, "Ugly things need love, too!"

Anonymous said...

OK, I think I've found a site that is ripe with ugly endangered things:

I particulary liked the Golden-rumped Sengi, which is described by "their general natural history is best understood if one considers them a combination of a small ant-eater and a miniature antelope (FitzGibbon, 1995; Rathbun, 1979a)."

Anonymous said...

OK, I found another good candidate: the Miller Lake lamprey. 'Cause, frankly, lampreys give me the willies. And this one has an interesting story.

Anonymous said...

I am from FNQ - same place as cassowaries. Another reason they are endangered is dogs - we have had three juvenile casses killed by dogs in recent years - one dog is no match for an adult cass, two dogs is murder to a young cass. It's shameful.