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Tropical North Queensland, Australia.
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SOUTHERN CASSOWARY


Photo: Courtesy of Damon Ramsey
 BSc.(Zool) Biologist Guide

Booming in cassowaries: Is it ultrasonic communication?

SOUTHERN CASSOWARY: Casuarius casarius 200 cm

  • The Cassowary has Gondwanaland origins (when much more of Australia was covered by rainforests).
  • There are two other cassowary species in New Guinea.
  • It lives to about 50 years of age.
  • Despite being a bird, the Cassowary is Australia’s largest land animal.
  • It normally weighs about 60kg, but the heaviest recorded was 83kg.
  • Its eggs are the third largest of all birds at an average 584g (after the Ostrich eggs at 1100g and Emu eggs at 637g).
  • Even though it is large and colourful, it can be hard to see in the rainforest. At close quarters it may be quite frightening.
  • It has powerful legs and if provoked may kick in defence. The sharp nails on its inner toes can easily rip flesh so the Cassowary is capable of killing humans.
  • Unable to fly, all it has is the vestigial remains of wings. These have 3-5 large wire-like feathers attached that help brush aside any plants in its travelling path. As it moves it also holds its head down for protection and lifts its toes right up under its chin.
  • Its hard casque or helmet comprises a central cartilage core and an outer tough horn-like skin covering. Its size is possibly significant in determining social status.
  • The Cassowary is an endangered species, with estimates of only 1500 remaining.
  • This means there may be fewer Cassowaries in Australia than Pandas in China. 
  • It has relatives such as the Elephant Bird of Madagascar and the moas of New Zealand that became extinct after contact with humans.
  • Its extinction could affect rainforest plant diversity as it helps spread the seeds of up to 100 tree and shrub species.
  • Its short digestive system allows it to eat the fruits of poisonous plants by eliminating the toxins before absorbing them. This seems to be associated with a highly active liver and an unusual combination of stomach enzymes.
  • Seeds usually remain intact and can grow after passing through the bird.  Accordingly, the Cassowary is often referred to as a ‘keystone species’ in seed dispersal.
  • Other animals such as the Musky Rat Kangaroo often include part-digested fruit from the Cassowary’s droppings in their diets.

Breeding:

  • The only time the Cassowary is not solitary is during the breeding season. At other times, if there is an accidental meeting, the female is dominant (it is larger with brighter colours).
  • A female often lay eggs in more than one male's nest, but then leaves the family responsibilities to them! The male incubates the eggs (for about 50 days) and looks after the young until he becomes intolerant of them and chases them away at about one year of age.
  • 4 or 5 blue-green eggs are laid from May/June to October/November.
  • The chicks are striped until they are about 6-9 months old and become a glossy black colour when they are about 3 years old.

Additional Information

  • 'Henry' was a well-known Cassowary living in the Lake Barrine region. He was born in November 1989 in the Gadgarra State Forest a short distance to the east. Being constantly surrounded by humans since his birth, he was  easily approachable (unlike other cassowaries).
  • In his youth he was a regular visitor to the clearing at Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodge .
  • 'Henry' had the advantage of easily finding food (given to him by his many visitors) without having to travel throughout the rainforest in search of the freshest fallen fruits for himself.  
  • His residence at Lake Barrine was a tourist drawcard but caused several problems.  In particular, he was a hazard to traffic and finally died after a minor collision with a truck.  

Some Ways to Help:

  • It’s best not to stop if you see a Cassowary on the road, but to slow down instead. This is to prevent encouragement of the bird’s interest in cars and to reduce its risk of being hit or causing an accident.
  • Do not feed a Cassowary as this reinforces its interest in people and contributes to its fearless attitude.
  • When driving near a Cassowary, move away quickly so the bird will become disinterested.
  • Keep car doors and windows closed to exclude cassowaries.
  • Please inform others of these suggestions.

Additional Information: Courtesy of Damon Ramsey

Description
Cassowaries are large animals; in fact they are usually the largest creatures within their rainforest habitat. Their body is covered in black hair-like feathers, with naked scaly legs that end in large feet with sharply clawed toes. In contrast the head and neck have bright blue and red coloration. On top of the head is a unique structure, the casque. These birds are usually silent, but can emit a low, booming call.

 Feeding ecology
Cassowaries eat mainly large colourful frits, but are also recorded to eat carrion and other small animals. They are considered vital “keystone” species due to the fact that they eat, (and therefore distribute) so many large tropical rainforest fruits. In fact, the Southern Cassowary is probably the single most important animal seed disperser of the Australian tropical rainforest. Studies have shown that the animal is an obligate frugivore, with the bird depending on fruits to survive (Stocker and Irvine 1993). So far, over 200 Australian tropical rainforest plants have been recorded to be eaten by cassowaries (Kroon and Westcott 2001). And even though the bird itself is hard to see, their scat can be quite common and conspicuous, and can contain up to 1 kilogram of seed (Stocker and Irvine 1983). One scat contained 13 seeds of about of about 6 centimetres in diameter (Stocker and Irvine 1983).

 Behaviour
Cassowaries are basically solitary animals. Radio-telemetry studies have shown that cassowaries, especially in the uplands, have huge territories, sometimes of several kilometres, and that they may cover that distance in a day (Kroon and Westcott 2001). The only time cassowaries are seen together is when a father is with the chicks. The female may mate with several partners, then leaves to let the male look after the large green eggs. The male then raises the chicks, at which time he is known to be potentially aggressive. The inner toe of the foot has a very large, sharp claw, probably used for defence. They have been known to attack people with these claws, and therefore should not be fed or approached. Thus, the Cassowary is considered one of Australia’s few potentially dangerous large animals.

 Habitat and distribution
Cassowaries are found mainly in tropical rainforest, although they do venture out into mangroves, farms and gardens. Two species, the 'Single wattled Cassowary' and the ‘Pygmy Cassowary' are restricted to the island of New Guinea, while the third species, the 'Southern Cassowary' is found in both New Guinea and Australia.

Script: Courtesy of Damon Ramsey BSc.(Zool) Biologist Guide

Additional Southern Cassowary Photos
Additional Southern Cassowary Photos 2
Southern Cassowary Chick
Revegetation Tips To Ensure the Cassowaries survival
Cassowary Food Plant List
Cassowary Workshop

RETURN TO BIRD INDEX


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Lake Eacham, Atherton Tablelands
Tropical North Queensland, Australia.
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