Casuarius casuarius (aka southern cassowary, Australian cassowary, double-wattled cassowary, Ceram cassowary)
Casuarius bennetti (aka dwarf cassowary, Bennett's cassowary, mountain cassowary, little cassowary)
Casaurius unappendiculatus (aka single-wattled cassowary, one-wattled cassowary, northern cassowary)

A tall flightless bird native to swamplands and rainforests in northeastern Australia (northern Queensland, specifically), New Guinea, and other nearby islands. There are three species total. The cassowary is renown primarily for two of its features: Its decorative head and the razor-sharp nails on its feet. The cassowary's head is bright blue (the hue gets darker further down the neck) with a grey, bony casque (to protect the creature as it moves through the undergrowth of a rainforest) at the top. The casque is composed of hard cartilage in its center and horn-like skin surrounding that. No other known species of bird has a similar protective casque. Two fleshy wattles of orangish-red color hang from the creature's neck.

Each of the cassowary's feet has three foward-pointing toes with notably strong claws for gripping the ground while running. Cassowaries can attain speeds of 48 kilometers/hour (30 miles/hour), are excellent swimmers, and can leap 1.5 meters (about 4.5 feet) into the air. The inner toe on each foot features an extended spike typically about twelve centimeters (five inches) in length, which the bird uses for defensive purposes. The birds are generally very shy, usually only attacking when cornered (when they do attack, however, they can easily kill a human). Adult cassowaries stand at about 1.75 meters (around five feet) and weighs around 60 kilograms (130 pounds). The heaviest cassowary on record weighed 83 kilograms (180 pounds). Cassowaries are the largest land animal native to Australia and the second largest bird in the world (second only to the ostrich). Cassowaries' somewhat egg-shaped bodies are covered in black, coarse, hair-like feathers.

The cassowary is part of a grouping of bird species called Ratite. Ratite comes from the Latin Ratis, which means raft. The reasoning behind this name is that the sternum of the birds of this family lack a keel to act as anchorage for the large muscles required for a bird to fly, which makes the bone flat like raft. As a result, the birds of the Ratite group cannot fly.

The cassowary primarily feeds on soft fruits found in its natural habitat, also playing a role in spreading the seeds of said fruits as the seeds are excreted undamaged. As a result, if cassowaries were to become extinct or their population reduced too low, the rainforests they live in would likely suffer in terms of growth. The digestion system of the cassowary also enables the animal to eat the fruit of poisonous plants by elminating the toxins before the fruit is absorbed into the rest of the body. High liver activity and an unusual combination of enzymes in the bird's stomach seems to be what removes the toxins. The availability of fruit at varying times of year appears to cause cassowaries to move around a bit to find more food. The birds generally eat the fruit once it has fallen to the ground. In the event that a cassowary can't find enough fruit, the bird has been known to eat fungi, insects, frogs, snakes, and small, dead birds and marsupials.

Female cassowaries, which are slightly larger than the males, may breed with multiple males between May and November of each year (cassowaries are typically solitary creatures, coming together only to mate). The female typically deserts whichever male she has mated with once she's laid the eggs, after which the male incubates them for about two months. Once the eggs hatch, the males take care of the young until they are about nine months of age. The number of eggs laid by a female is usually between three and six and the eggs themselves are fourteen by nine centimeters (5.5 by 3.5 inches) in size (making them the third largest bird eggs in the world, dwarfed only by those of the ostrich and emu). The young's bodies are yellowish-brown with vertical black stripes and stay this way until they are about three months old. Juvenile cassowaries have a duller version of the adult's head coloration and lack a casque. Eventually a young cassowary will be chased out of its fathers territory (by the father) and forced to find its own home range. This is the most dangerous time for most of a cassowary's life, as it can still easily fall prey to predatory animals such as dogs and must adjust to living on its own for the first time.

Cassowaries live to be about fifty years old. There are believed to be somewhere around fifteen hundred cassowaries alive in the wild (it's an endangered species). Australia has a total of forty in captivity.

Sources:
http://home.mira.net/~areadman/casso.htm
http://www.ozramp.net.au/~senani/cassow.htm
http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/c/cassowar.asp
http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/r/ratite.asp
http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/birds/printouts/Cassowaryprintout.shtml
http://rainforest-australia.com/cass.html
http://www.wettropics.gov.au/lm/The_Cassowary.htm

Cas"so*wa*ry (?), n.; pl. Cassowaries (#). [Malay kasuari.] Zool.

A large bird, of the genus Casuarius, found in the east Indies. It is smaller and stouter than the ostrich. Its head is armed with a kind of helmet of horny substance, consisting of plates overlapping each other, and it has a group of long sharp spines on each wing which are used as defensive organs. It is a shy bird, and runs with great rapidity. Other species inhabit New Guinea, Australia, etc.

 

© Webster 1913.

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