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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Monday 29 June 2015


A mail-order advertisement for sea-monkeys that appeared in numerous American children's comic-books during the early 1970s - click picture to enlarge it for reading the advert (© Transcience Corporation / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

As a child during the late 1960s and early 1970s, living in England, I enthusiastically supplemented my already-extensive reading of British comics with any American comic-books that I could find, especially ones published by Gold Key or Charlton that featured popular television cartoon characters from that time period. Moreover, browsing through them I not only enjoyed the comic strip stories themselves but also never failed to be equally captivated as well as wholly confused and thoroughly tormented in equal measure by a certain mail-order advertisement (reproduced at the beginning of this present ShukerNature blog article) that these comic-books frequently contained – captivated by the extraordinary entities that this advertisement offered for sale, yet confused by what seemed to be a self-evident fact that such entities couldn't possibly exist, and tormented because, as the comic-books were American and the mail-order advertisement required pre-payment in US dollars only ($1 plus 30c p&p), to be sent to an address in New York, USA, I couldn't readily purchase any of these entities directly myself and thence discover their true nature.

I still retain a representative selection of those comic-books from my childhood, and perusing some of them recently I was delighted to discover no fewer than three that actually contained this particular advertisement. Two of them were Tom and Jerry comic-books published by Gold Key, the issues in question being August 1972 (#265) and August 1973 (#273) respectively; the third was the November 1971 issue (#72) of Gold Key's Daffy Duck/The Road Runner comic-book.

Holding my August 1972 issue of Gold Key's Tom and Jerry comic-book open at the page containing the sea-monkeys advertisement – click picture to enlarge it for viewing the sea-monkeys advert in close-up detail (© Dr Karl Shuker/Gold Key/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc/Transcience Corporation / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

As can be seen from this advertisement, the entities in question were referred to as sea-monkeys, and were depicted, astonishingly, as a family (father, mother, daughter, and young son) of tiny underwater-inhabiting humanoid beings, but sporting a long finned tail, normal fingered hands yet wholly webbed feet, three bauble-tipped spikes on top of their heads resembling a crown but seemingly constituting a physical part of their skull, a heavily-scaled chest in both male and female, plus a ridged back recalling that of a seahorse.

But that was not all. According to the advertisement, these incredible sea-monkeys hatched from eggs and came to life instantly when placed in water, and could even be trained to play games. Yet they allegedly required hardly any food or general maintenance, even keeping their water clean without any outside assistance.

As someone with a veritable library of wildlife books readily to hand even as a child, bought for me with great love over the years by my mother, my grandparents (my mother's parents), and my great-aunt, and whose precious information I'd hungrily devoured through time and constant re-reading in my relentless quest for ever more knowledge concerning animals (especially the more unusual ones), I was only too well aware that sea-monkeys did not feature in any of them, not by as much as a single sentence. (And because all of this took place many years before the internet was born, the world of instantly-accessible, near-infinite quantities of information that we all inhabit today – and which would surely have yielded the necessary details to solve the sea-monkey conundrum swiftly and conclusively – was nothing more than a sci-fi dream of the far-distant future back then.) So what on earth – or, more precisely, under the water – were these astonishing aquatic beings, these so-called sea-monkeys? How could they be explained? Various options came to mind.

Close-up of the sea-monkeys as portrayed in an early 1970s mail-order advertisement (© Transcience Corporation / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

For instance: might it be possible, I wondered, that the entire sea-monkey scenario was simply a hoax – perhaps an ingenious means of enticing naïve and credulous youngsters reading the sea-monkey mail-order advertisement in their comic-books to send off money in the hope of purchasing miraculous little beings that in reality didn't exist, meaning therefore that the youngsters never received any sea-monkeys nor saw their money again either? Or could it be some form of highly imaginative publicity campaign for an entirely different product, but, if so, what might that product be? I even pondered over the prospect that perhaps sea-monkeys were indeed real but constituted a novel life-form that had somehow been created artificially by scientists (having said that, please bear in mind that I was still only a child back then, and one with a very vivid imagination to boot!).

It took several years, but during the mid-1970s I finally discovered the answer to the riddle of the sea-monkeys, an answer so long awaited by me. One day, I happened to spot in an American comic-book a version of the sea-monkey advertisement that I had never seen before. True, the image of the sea-monkeys was exactly the same as before, and the details concerning them were much the same too (albeit slightly reworded and presented in a somewhat different layout, and also incorporating a minor increase in required pre-payment for the sea-monkeys, from $1 to $1.25, plus 50c p&p). But what made this particular version of the advertisement so significant to me was that it contained a small yet very telling amendment.

As can be seen below in the following reproduction of this amended advertisement, a brief disclaimer was present in small print along the bottom edge of the advert, which read: "Caricatures shown not intended to depict Artemia". With those fateful words, the mystery that (at least for me) had long surrounded the sea-monkeys was instantly and comprehensively dispersed – the cat was finally out of the bag, or, to quote a more zoologically apt metaphor, the shrimps were finally in the net!

A 1976 comic-book advertisement for sea-monkeys that included a disclaimer which provided an answer to the riddle of these perplexing beings' true nature - click picture to enlarge it for reading the advert (© Transcience Corporation / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

For not only had the advertisement's whimsical sea-monkey illustrations been exposed by the disclaimer as being merely caricatures rather than accurate representations of these entities' true appearance, the sea-monkeys themselves had been unmasked, having been shown not to be entities in any humanoid sense of the word. Instead, as unequivocally identified in the disclaimer, they were Artemia – i.e. brine shrimps!

Veritable living fossils inasmuch as they differ very little in overall morphology from their Triassic ancestors dating back in the fossil record to over 200 million years ago, brine shrimps inhabit inland saltwater lakes (but not marine habitats) and are of worldwide distribution. Measuring little more than 1 cm in total length (females are slightly larger than males), and often pink in colour, they consist of eight separate species all housed within the single genus Artemia (of which the most familiar is A. salina), and belong to the taxonomic class of crustaceans known as branchiopods. These also include among their numbers those fellow living fossils the tadpole shrimps Triops and Lepidurus, as well as the water fleas (e.g. Daphnia), fairy shrimps, and clam shrimps.

Brine shrimps possess a typical primitive crustacean body design, composed of head, thorax, and a lengthy slender abdomen (often colloquially termed the tail), the body itself usually consisting of 19 segments, of which the first eleven (constituting the thorax) each bears a pair of broad leaf-like limbs. In addition, the long abdominal section ('tail') sports at its tip a pair of slender, vaguely fin-like structures called furcae. The head bears a pair of large laterally-sited compound eyes on stalks, plus a third medial eye that is the only eye present in brine shrimp larvae (nauplii). It also possesses two pairs of antennae (in the male, the second pair is modified into greatly-enlarged clasping organs for gripping the female during mating), and three pairs of jawparts (mandibles, maxillulae, and maxillae).

19th-Century engraving of an adult male Artemia salina brine shrimp, revealing the composition of its body and also showing its greatly-enlarged claspers, modified from its second pair of antennae (public domain)

Yet despite the fact that, fin-bearing 'tail' notwithstanding, brine shrimps clearly look nothing whatsoever like the advertisement's delightful yet entirely fanciful sea-monkey illustrations that depict the latter entities as underwater finned humanoids, these small crustaceans do share one major, fundamental similarity with the sea-monkeys as described in this advert.

Under normal conditions, adult female brine shrimps ovulate every 140 hours, and their eggs hatch almost instantly when placed into water with favourable salinity levels (25-250 g/l, with 60-100 g/l being the optimal range, brine shrimps being able to withstand much higher salinity concentrations than most other animals). This activity validates the sea-monkey advertisement's claim that the latter's eggs will hatch as soon as placed in water – in other words, instant life (which was the original name given to sea-monkeys before their simian moniker was dreamed up – see later in this article).

But that is not all. If confronted by unfavourable salinity levels, female brine shrimps will not produce normal eggs but will instead produce metabolically-inactive ones known as cysts, which are coated externally with a protective brown-coloured covering of chorion, enabling them to remain dormant for up to 2 years, even when exposed to such extreme conditions as immersion in liquid air at temperatures as low as -190°C, or in boiling water for up to 2 hours. This ability to remain in suspended animation for a prolonged period of time is known as cryptobiosis. Once placed in favourable surroundings, however, the cysts will hatch within a few hours. Needless to say, such hardy, virtually indestructible creatures that are so easily reared make ideal pets for young children who possess little if any practical pet-keeping experience – a simple truth that ultimately inspired the whole sea-monkey concept.

A brine shrimp cyst, in which this crustacean undergoes an extended period of suspended animation or cryptobiosis (public domain)

In addition, brine shrimps are extremely active, energetic swimmers, another characteristic guaranteed to engage and hold the attention of youngsters. Indeed, in his famous three-volume Illustrated Natural History published in 1863, the Reverend J.G. Wood included a paragraph that perfectly captures the very lively, animated behaviour of brine shrimps, readily explaining their continuing popularity as pets for children:

"The movements of this little creature are most graceful. It mostly swims on its back, its feet being in constant motion, and its course directed by means of its long tail. It revolves in the water, bends itself into varied curves, turns fairly over, wheels to the right or left, and seems thoroughly to enjoy the very fact of existence."

As for being trainable: brine shrimps are actively attracted to light, swimming towards it, so if a narrow beam is shone from a torch into a large tank or aquarium containing sea-monkeys, and then moved around inside it, they will follow the beam's movements.

Yet even after I finally discovered during the mid-1970s that sea-monkeys were brine shrimps, additional details concerning the sea-monkey scenario remained undisclosed to me for many years – until the internet's vast resources of online information presented me at long last with the history and background behind these most unexpected yet exceedingly popular pets, and which I am now summarising as follows.

Brine shrimp 'sea-monkeys' swimming in an aquarium (public domain)

Long before the advent of sea-monkeys, brine shrimp were (and still are) popularly sold as pet food by pet shops, and in 1957, after reputedly encountering some brine shrimp in a pet shop , Harold von Braunhut came up with the idea of using them as 'instant life' – believing (correctly, as it turned out) that the spectacle of brine shrimps instantly hatching and swimming around in an aquarium when their eggs were added to water would prove popular among children. After developing a special mix of compounds, with the assistance of microcrustacean expert Dr Anthony D'Agostino, that would incite this dramatic reaction when brine shrimp eggs were dropped into tap water (tap water normally being far less salty than the water normally inhabited by these crustaceans), von Braunhut began marketing brine shrimps as pets during the early 1960s under the name 'Instant Life'. However, in 1964 he changed this to the more intriguing, curiosity-inciting 'Sea-Monkeys' moniker, the shrimps' long tails supposedly reminding him of monkeys' tails.

Moreover, these brine shrimps were not just any old brine shrimps. Von Braunhut and D'Agostino had previously spent a considerable time engineering via cross-breeding methods a new, special variety of brine shrimp that was not found in nature but which lived longer, grew larger, and was physically tougher than those that were. Eventually they achieved success, creating a very sturdy hybrid that they formally dubbed Artemia NYOS (NYOS referring to the New York Oceanic Society's Montor, Long Island, laboratory where it was developed). The classic sea-monkey was born!

Unfortunately, brine shrimps (hybrid or otherwise) are not the most alluring of creatures in basic appearance, so von Braunhut soon hired acclaimed comic-book artist Joe Orlando to depict them as the irresistibly charming mini-humanoids with fins and tails that have been synonymous with the sea-monkey name ever since. Yet another highly ingenious, ultra-successful idea conceived early on by von Braunhut was to sell sea-monkeys via mail-order using Orlando-illustrated advertisements placed in countless American children's comic-books year after year, beginning in 1962 – thereby directly and intensively targeting their prime purchasers, American children. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sea-monkey and brine shrimp (illustration copyright holder unknown to me / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Harold von Braunhut died in 2003, but his legacy lives on, with the sea-monkey pet industry that he founded over 50 years ago remaining just as popular today as it ever was, selling not only sea-monkeys themselves (in their billions since 1957) but also a vast, highly diverse collection of accessories – everything from the Sea-Monkey Ocean Zoo, the Sea-Monkey Circus, and the Deluxe Sea-Monkey Speedway to fully-functional watches containing sea-monkeys swimming around inside their dials.

Sea-monkeys have also appeared in many top-rated television shows, including The Simpsons, South Park, American Dad, Desperate Housewives, and Roseanne. In 1992, they even inspired an 11-episode television series of their own entitled The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys, featuring actors as human-sized sea-monkeys; as well as a video game, The Amazing Virtual Sea-Monkeys, released during the early 2000s. In 2012, celebrated American poet Campbell McGrath published a book of poems entitled In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, which contained one poem about living in the sea-monkey kingdom depicted by Orlando in the sea-monkey advertisements (my thanks to Facebook colleague John Callahan for this info).

And over 400 million sea-monkeys were sent up into space with American astronaut John Glenn for nine days back in 1998, for any effects upon these tiny creatures' eggs resulting from exposure to radiation, weightlessness, and gravitational force upon re-entry to be studied. Eight weeks after their return to Earth, however, the eggs hatched normally and yielded apparently normal brine shrimps too, having been seemingly unaffected, therefore, by their extraterrestrial experience.

My still-unopened sea-monkey 'starter pack' (© Dr Karl Shuker/Transcience Corporation / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Finally: although the breadth of the vast Atlantic Ocean, a conflict of currencies, and a distinct lack of financial expertise on my part as a child in 1970s England all originally stifled my desire to purchase some sea-monkeys from their American source as given in the comic-book advertisements, several years ago I was delighted to discover that these illusive creatures could now be purchased directly in England.

Consequently, I soon bought an all-in-one sea-monkey 'starter pack' – containing sea-monkey eggs, nutrients, water purifier, magnifier, and even a feeding spoon – but I have never even opened it, let alone got around to 'growing' and nurturing any of these animals in an aquarium. Why not?

I suppose the answer is that because I now know exactly what sea-monkeys are (nothing more than brine shrimps), and what they are not (incredible underwater mini-humanoids with fins!), the magic that formerly surrounded them has gone. Sometimes, just as English poet Thomas Gray so succinctly expressed it way back in 1742: "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise".

Another look at my Tom and Jerry comic-book containing the early 1970s version of the sea-monkeys advertisement – click picture to enlarge it for viewing the advert in close-up detail (© Dr Karl Shuker/Gold Key/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc/Transcience Corporation / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Sunday 28 June 2015


Plate XXXIII from Lord Walter Rothschild's definitive cassowary monograph, portraying the still-mysterious Sclater's cassowary Casuarius philipi (public domain)

Distributed widely through Australasia, the cassowaries constitute a trio of imposing, forest-dwelling ratite species with black, spine-like feathers enlivened by brilliantly-coloured patches of red, mauve, or blue skin on their neck; a multifarious assemblage of commensurately gaudy neck wattles; and a horny helmet-like casque, again of varying appearance, on top of their head. The native tribes sharing their jungle domain often keep young cassowaries as pets, but greatly fear the adult birds on account of their formidable claws - with which, the natives aver, they can readily disembowel with a single kick anyone foolish enough to threaten them.

Even so, this does not prevent many tribes from utilising cassowaries as a form of feathered currency, trading living specimens or select portions of dead ones (particularly the casque, claws, and feathers) far and wide in exchange for useful items such as domestic livestock - and wives! The late Dr Thomas Gilliard, an expert on New Guinea avifauna, learnt that in Papua the rate of exchange for one live cassowary was eight pigs, or one woman!

Photograph of an adult double-wattled cassowary in captivity (© Dezidor/Wikipedia)

During the early 17th Century, scholar Charles de l'Écluse placed on record the eventful history of the first cassowary ever seen in Europe - a much-travelled specimen originally captured on the Moluccan island of Seram (Ceram), but brought back to Amsterdam in 1597 from Java (after locals had taken it there some time earlier from Banda, another Moluccan island) by the first Dutch expedition to the East Indies. Given to the expedition by the ruler of the Javanese town of Sydayo (only a day or so before he then murdered the expedition's skipper!), it lost no time in becoming a much-coveted cassowary following its arrival in Holland.

Effortlessly ascending ever higher through the rarefied strata of European high society, after a period of several months as the star of a highly successful public exhibition at Amsterdam this distinguished bird passed into the hands of Count George Everard Solms and journeyed to the Hague, and later it was owned for a time by the Elector Palatine, Prince Ernestus of Cologne, before attaining the zenith of its fame by becoming the property of no less a personage than Emperor Rudolph II of the Holy Roman Empire.

Beautiful 7.5-in-tall resin model (manufacturer unknown to me) of the double-wattled (southern) cassowary Casuarius casuarius, bought for me by my mother Mary Shuker in 2012 (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

Its species became known as Casuarius casuarius, the Seram or common cassowary, which is the tallest of the three modern-day species of cassowary, averaging 5.5 ft in height (including its lofty casque). It generally bears two wattles on its neck, so today it is most frequently called the double-wattled cassowary (a name originally given to C. bicarunculatus, but which is now known to be conspecific with C. casuarius anyway – see later in this article). Moreover, due to its most southerly distribution among cassowaries, occurring not only in New Guinea and various much smaller northerly islands close by but also as far south as Australia, C. casuarius is additionally referred to as the southern cassowary.

Casuarius casuarius illustration from 1861 (public domain)

Based in most cases upon only the most trivial of differences in the colour, number, and shape of their wattles and also upon the shape of their casque (all characteristics now known to be exceedingly variable and of little if any taxonomic significance), a highly confusing plethora of species and subspecies all supposedly distinct from Seram's C. casuarius were described during the 19th Century, particularly by Lord Walter Rothschild, who documented a bewildering array of them in his comprehensive study 'A monograph of the genus Casuarius', published in December 1900 as an extensive, fully-illustrated paper within the Transactions of the Zoological Society of London.

(Indeed, Rothschild held such a passion for these striking birds that for research purposes he had no less than 62 mounted specimens prepared and housed at his once-private natural history museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire, which is now the ornithological section of London's Natural History Museum, where they remain today; and he also maintained a number of living specimens for study there.)

Seram cassowary Casuarius casuarius on left; Australian cassowary C. (c.) australis in centre; and Aru Islands double-wattled cassowary C. bicarunculatus on right – painted by Keulemans, from Rothschild's monograph (public domain)

Beccari's cassowary C. (c.) beccarii on left and blue-necked cassowary C. (c.) intensus on right – painted by Keulemans, from Rothschild's monograph (public domain)

These once-discrete species and subspecies included the Australian cassowary C. (c.) australis (from northeastern Australia, first recorded by Europeans in 1854); Beccari's cassowary C. (c.) beccarii, the violet-necked cassowary C. (c.) violicollis, and the Aru Islands double-wattled cassowary C. bicarunculatus (all three from the Aru Islands); Salvadori's cassowary C. (c.) tricarunculatus [aka salvadorii] (Geelvink Bay in Indonesian New Guinea or Irian Jaya); the blue-necked cassowary C. (c.) intensus (provenance unrecorded); and the single-wattled cassowary C. unappendiculatus (Salawati Island).

Salvadori's cassowary C. (c.) tricarunculatus on left and violet-necked cassowary C. (c.) violicollis on right – painted by Keulemans, from Rothschild's monograph (public domain)

Only the last-mentioned form, however, is still recognised as a genuinely separate species (indeed, today most ornithologists do not even split C. casuarius into any subspecies, let alone species). Standing 4.5-5.5 ft tall and known both as the single-wattled cassowary and as the northern cassowary, C. unappendiculatus also inhabits mainland New Guinea and the offshore islands of Misol and Japen.

Single-wattled cassowaries, painted by John Gould during the 19th Century (public domain)

It was first made known to science by Edward Blyth in January 1860, by way of a living specimen of unrecorded provenance but which had been brought to Calcutta, India, and was observed by him there in an aviary owned by the Bábu Rajendra Mullick.

Single-wattled cassowary and brown-plumed juvenile, painted by Keulemans, from Rothschild's monograph (public domain)

Three years earlier, Dr George Bennett, a surgeon and biologist from New South Wales, Australia, had recorded the existence on the large island of New Britain (just off eastern New Guinea) of a cassowary whose unusually small size, lack of wattles, and noticeably flattened casque left no room for doubt that, unlike so many other forms being described and named at around that time, this really was a radically new, well-delineated species. Known to the natives as the mooruk and only up to 3.5 ft tall, it was christened C. bennetti, Bennett's cassowary aka the dwarf cassowary, by John Gould, with Bennett sending a specimen to London.

An inquisitive-looking mooruk and chick portrayed in an illustration from 1860 (public domain)

Greatly intrigued by this diminutive species, Bennett obtained two mooruks from New Britain and gave them the freedom of his home in Sydney – discovering that they made entertaining if inquisitive house-guests, as summarised in W. H. Davenport Adams's book The Bird World (1885):

"The birds…were very tame; they ran freely about his house and garden - fearlessly approaching any person who was in the habit of feeding them. After a while they grew so bold as to disturb the servants while at work; they entered the open doors, followed the inmates step by step, pried and peered into every corner of the kitchen, leaped upon the chairs and tables, flocked round the busy and bountiful cook. If an attempt were made to catch them, they immediately took to flight, hid under or among the furniture, and lustily defended themselves with beak and claw. But as soon as they were left alone they returned, of their own accord, to their accustomed place. If a servant-maid endeavoured to drive them away, they struck her and rent her garments. They would penetrate into the stables among the horses, and eat with them, quite sociably, out of the rack. Frequently they pushed open the door of Bennett's study, walked all around it gravely and quietly, examined every article, and returned as noiselessly as they came."

The discovery of Bennett's cassowary was followed by the documentation of other, similarly undersized, wattle-less types, initially treated as distinct species, especially once again by Rothschild. These included Westermann's cassowary C. papuanus (Arfak Peninsula in northwestern Indonesian New Guinea), Loria's cassowary C. loriae (southern Papua New Guinea), and the painted cassowary C. picticollis (southeastern Papua New Guinea), but all of them are classified today as being conspecific with C. bennetti.

Westermann's cassowary C. papuensis on left; Loria's cassowary C. loriae in centre; and painted cassowary C. picticollis on right – painted by Keulemans, from Rothschild's monograph (public domain)

And so, whittled down from a considerable number formerly deemed to be taxonomically distinct species of cassowary, only three are recognised nowadays (with no subspecies among any of them). A fourth valid species, the pygmy cassowary C. lydekkeri, which was very closely related to Bennett's cassowary yet even smaller in size, existed in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea and also in Australia during the Late Pleistocene epoch, occurring as far south as the Wellington Valley of New South Wales, but it is now extinct.

In addition, however, there is one truly enigmatic form that remains mystifying and unique even today – Sclater's cassowary.

Formally described and christened Casuarius philipi in 1898 by Rothschild in his own scientific journal Novitates Zoologiae and fully documented in his monograph two years later, Sclater's cassowary was named in honour of the eminent British zoologist Dr Philip L. Sclater. Over a century later, however, it is still known only from its type specimen, which was living at London Zoo when Rothschild's monograph was written, having been shipped there from Calcutta, but whose native provenance is unknown (though Rothschild speculated that it may have come from eastern German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea's northeastern portion). Moreover, the only image of it known to me is the 'head-and-shoulders' full-colour painting of it produced by the renowned Dutch bird illustrator John Gerrard Keulemans, who prepared it from the living bird, and which appears as Plate XXXIII in Rothschild's monograph. Here it is:

Keulemans's painting (close-up view) of Sclater's cassowary, from Rothschild's monograph (public domain)

Although he allied it most closely to the single-wattled (northern) cassowary (and is deemed conspecific with that latter species by current ornithological consensus), judging from Rothschild's verbal account of its complete form, however, this individual bird must have been truly extraordinary in overall appearance. Here is Rothschild's full description of it in his monograph:

Rothschild's description of Sclater's cassowary on pp. 138-139 of his monograph – click to enlarge for reading purposes (public domain)

As can be seen, Rothschild revealed that although in height Sclater's cassowary was no taller than Bennett's dwarf moa C. bennetti due to its very stout but short legs, in overall proportions it was exceptionally robust – so much so, in fact, that he went so far as to liken its form to that of the bulkiest, sturdiest species of New Zealand moa, the aptly-named heavy-footed moa Pachyornis elephantopus (elephantopus actually translates as 'elephant-footed'). Moreover, its very bulky body was set very low on its legs, drawing further comparisons with the latter moa.

Bearing in mind that Sclater's cassowary is known entirely from just one specimen, however, it would not be outlandish to explain its remarkable form merely as extreme individual variation upon the normal single-wattled cassowary theme – but its body stature and poise were not the only anomalous features exhibited by this extraordinary bird.

Reconstruction of the heavy-footed moa Pachyornis elephantopus from here (© niaolei.org.cn)

Equally bizarre were its feathers, which were not disintegrated in structure like those of all other cassowaries, and were abnormally long on its rump, to the extent that some of those latter feathers actually touched the ground. Moreover, by being not only compressed laterally but also depressed posteriorly, its casque seemed to be a unique composite of the two different casque forms individually recorded from all other cassowaries. Even its cry – described by Rothschild as very loud and resembling a deep roar – instantly distinguished this most contentious of cassowaries from all others.

So what exactly was Sclater's cassowary – simply a one-off freak specimen of the single-wattled cassowary, or might it possibly be the only scientifically recorded specimen of a taxonomically distinct subspecies or even species in its own right? Over a century later, we still have no answer to this tantalising question, but as its holotype is retained at Tring Natural History Museum, we must hope that one day some genetic analyses will be conducted upon it to reveal its true identity at last.

Bennett's cassowary or mooruk, painted by Keulemans in 1872 (public domain)

Among the wealth of myth and folklore associated with cassowaries is a most curious conviction fostered by such tribes as the Huri and the Wola from Papua New Guinea's remote Southern Highlands Province. According to their lore, a female Bennett's cassowary maintained in captivity is able to reproduce even if she is not provided with a male partner. All that she has to do is locate a specific type of tree and thrust her breast against its trunk, again and again, in an ever-intensifying frenzy, until at last she collapses onto the floor in a state of complete exhaustion, suffering from internal bleeding that festers and clots to yield yellow pus. This in turn proliferates, producing yolk-containing eggs that the female lays, and which are incubated and hatch as normal.

Although a highly bizarre tale, it is worth recalling that cases of parthenogenesis (virgin birth) are fully confirmed from a few species of bird, notably the common turkey, in which the offspring are genetically identical to their mother. Perhaps, therefore, this odd snippet of native folklore should be investigated - just in case (once such evident elements of fantasy as the pus-engendered yolk are stripped away) there is a foundation in fact for it, still awaiting scientific disclosure.

Bennett's cassowaries, painted by John Gould during the 19th Century (public domain)

An even more imaginative Wola belief regarding Bennett's cassowary concerns its migratory habits. As revealed by Paul Sillitoe during a filming expedition to Wola territory in 1978 (Geographical Journal, May 1981), these birds only visit this area when the fruits upon which they feed are in season here. At the season's end they travel further afield again, but the Wola are convinced that they have gone to live in the sky with a thunder goddess (though they neglect to reveal how these flightless birds become airborne!).

A pair of double-wattled cassowaries, painted by Henry Constantine Richter in 1851 (public domain)

Irrespective of these charming tales, it is true that for flightless birds the cassowaries do exhibit an extraordinarily dispersed, far-flung distribution - occurring on a surprising number of different islands. Admittedly, many of these islands were once joined to one another in the not-too-distant geological past, but some ornithologists remain doubtful that the cassowaries' range is entirely natural - suggesting instead that they may have been introduced onto certain of their insular territories via human agency.

Double-wattled cassowaries, painted by John Gould, from his book The Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Papuan Islands (1888) (public domain)

For example, Drs A.L. Rand and Thomas Gilliard proposed in their Handbook of New Guinea Birds (1967) that C. casuarius may well have been brought by humans to Seram. In view of the New Guinea tribes' very extensive trade in cassowaries - not only transporting them across land but also exporting them far and wide in boats (a tradition known to have been occurring for at least 500 years) - such a possibility is by no means implausible. It was raised in 1975 by Dr C.M.N. White too, within the British Ornithologists Club's bulletin, and he offered a corresponding explanation in the same publication the following year for the presence on New Britain of Bennett's cassowary.

Incidentally, another intriguing zoogeographical anomaly featuring Bennett's cassowary is its unexpected portrayal upon a postage stamp issued on 1 July 1909 by North Borneo (now the Borneo-sited Malaysian state of Sabah), bearing in mind that this species does not occur anywhere on Borneo. In fact, as revealed in The Stamps and Postal History of North Borneo, Part III: 1909-1938 by L.H. Shipman and P.K. Cassels, the explanation for this philatelic puzzle is that the intended bird for this particular stamp was not Bennett's cassowary at all, but rather a megapode (specifically the Philippine megapode Megapodius cumingii, which is indeed native here – not the dusky megapode M. freycinet, incidentally, as erroneously claimed in certain sources, which is not native here). But somehow the wrong bird was chosen for the design, and the stamp was duly prepared and issued before the mistake was discovered. In wry recognition of the error, however, this stamp has been referred to ever since in North Borneo as the megapode stamp.

The infamous cassowary postage stamp issued in 1909 by North Borneo (public domain)

Probably the most unexpected variation on the theme of displaced cassowaries, however, is a case aired by Drs G.H. Ralph von Koenigswald and Joachim Steinbacher in a Natur und Museum paper published in 1986. They reported the presence of a bas-relief glyph depicting a readily-identifiable cassowary at Tjandi-Panataran – a Hindu temple not far from Wadjak in eastern Java, and dating from around the 12th-15th Century AD. As there is no evidence to imply that Java ever harboured a native form of cassowary, this depiction lends itself to a variety of different cultural interpretations.

The cassowary glyph present at eastern Java's Tjandi-Panataran temple (public domain)

For instance, it suggests that the centuries-old tradition of cassowary trade and export from New Guinea may have even extended as far afield as Java, or at least that the cassowary had been taken to Java from some other nearby island that may have originally received it from New Guinea  (e.g. Banda, Seram). Alternatively, the depiction might simply have been based upon descriptions of cassowaries, recounted to the Javan natives by visiting New Guinea traders. There is even the chance that the Javan tribe responsible for this glyph was descended from one that had migrated to southeast Asia from New Guinea, and the glyph's image was inspired by orally-preserved traditions among this translocated people of birds known to their ancestors in New Guinea.

When dealing with birds as unforgettable as the incomparably compelling and effortlessly memorable cassowaries, (almost) anything seems possible!

Westermann's cassowaries, painted by John Gould during the 19th Century (public domain)

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and greatly expanded from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.