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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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.

1 comment:

  1. The cassowary looks related to the duckbilled dinosaurs with that crest.That dinosaurs are related to birds seems more plausible when observing cassowaries. If the Papuans traded these birds to other islands how is it surprising when Europeans have relocated fish,birds,plants etc. to other continents.Interesting article.