10 Colorful Facts About Cassowaries

iStock/BirdImages
iStock/BirdImages

All birds are living dinosaurs, but the dagger-clawed cassowary especially looks the part. Even wildlife biologists call cassowaries the world's most dangerous bird—and yes, it has been known to kill people. Here’s everything you need to know about the majestic and terrifying beast.

1. The southern cassowary is Earth's second-heaviest bird.

Scientists recognize three living species of cassowary—all of which live in New Guinea, northeastern Australia, and nearby islands. The dwarf cassowary is the smallest, with an average height of around 3 feet. The northern cassowary, an orange-throated behemoth, can stand nearly 5 feet tall. The southern cassowary is bigger than both at 5 foot 6 inches tall. The only two birds that grow taller are ostriches and emus. Adult southern cassowary females can weigh up to 157 pounds, and males 121 pounds, making them the second-heaviest birds on the planet behind ostriches.

2. Cassowaries have dangerous feet.

In the southern cassowary's Australian range, you might come across warning signs that read “Be Cass-o-wary.” Heed this advice. Normally, cassowaries are shy and reclusive, but they can become aggressive when threatened and strike back with powerful head-butts and pecks. Their most dangerous weapon is the razor-sharp claw on the middle toe of each foot, which, in southern cassowaries, grows to be 5 inches long. The birds deliver a series of downward kicks that have been known to break bones and cause fatal lacerations. 

3. Rearing cassowary chicks is the father's job.

Female cassowaries breed with several partners. After laying her eggs, she abandons them, at which point the males take over and incubates the eggs for at least 50 days. The fathers never leave the nest, not even to eat or drink. Once the eggs hatch, males spend the next nine months raising and defending the chicks. Males also teach the chicks how to forage so they can fend for themselves.

4. Cassowaries are surprisingly good jumpers.

What’s scarier than a 150-pound modern dinosaur with killer claws? One that can leap 7 feet off the ground. To get the most out of those toe daggers, cassowaries will sometimes jump feet-first at an attacker, with the claws slashing downward in midair. They’re also great swimmers and sprinters with a top running speed of 30 miles per hour.

5. Cassowaries have a spike hidden on each wing.

Cassowaries are closely related to emus and more distantly related to ostriches, rheas, and kiwis. All of these birds, known as ratites, are flightless. Cassowaries have small vestigial wings tipped with a small claw that probably serves no purpose.

6. Cassowaries are frugivores that also eat their own poop.

Wild cassowaries dine mainly on fruits and berries that fall to the ground in the rainforests they call home. A typical southern cassowary can eat up to 11 pounds of fruit a day, along with plenty of fungi and the occasional dead animal for some extra protein.

Cassowaries also hunt rodents, snails, and lizards. Poop is yet another item on the menu. Cassowary poop usually contains half-digested fruit, which still has plenty of nutritional value, so the birds devour each other’s droppings as well as their own. 

7. The function of their odd crests, or casques, is a mystery. 

Cassowaries sport royal-blue necks and shaggy black feathers, but their most distinctive feature is the helmet-like casque that sits above the eyes. The bony protrusion is covered with a sheath of keratin (the material that makes up your fingernails), and it begins to develop when the bird is around 2 years old. Scientists have long speculated, sometimes wildly, about its purpose. One theory is that casques help cassowaries push aside forest underbrush. The casques might also be used to attract the opposite sex.

A more interesting hypothesis involves how these birds communicate. Cassowaries emit very deep bellows—the lowest bird calls known to humans. Perhaps their casques amplify and broadcast these sounds by acting as a resonance chamber. Certain crested dinosaurs (like Parasaurolophus of Jurassic Park fame) may have produced calls the same way.

8. Cassowaries can live for decades (at least in zoos).

Naturalists don’t know how long a wild cassowary can expect to live. A few southern cassowaries have reached their 40th birthdays in captivity. In zoos, northern cassowaries can top that figure—one reached the age of 48 and another may have been as old as 61. The average lifespan for captive dwarf cassowaries is about 26 years.

9. Cassowaries have strange genitalia.

Both sexes have a pseudo-penis that isn’t connected to any of their internal reproductive organs. When cassowaries mate, the male ejaculates through his cloaca, an orifice at the base of the pseudo-penis. When they aren’t mating, males' pseudo-penis is turned inside out and retracted.

Such peculiar anatomy has given the cassowary a unique place in New Guinean culture and folklore. For example, the native Mianmin people tell stories about a human woman with a penis who somehow transformed into a cassowary. Another indigenous group, the Umeda, put on a regular ceremony called “ida.” A big event that lasts for two days and nights, the ritual involves a fertility dance which calls for two male dancers who represent a pair of cassowaries. Each player is given a heavy mask and is coated with charcoal from head to toe.

10. At least two unfortunate humans have been killed by cassowaries. 

To date, there have been only two verified reports of a cassowary taking human life. In April 1926, a cassowary fatally charged 16-year-old farmer Phillip McLean in north Queensland, Australia. More recently, a 75-year-old Florida man was killed by a cassowary he had kept as a pet at his exotic bird farm.

In 1999, Queensland Parks and Wildlife ranger Christopher P. Kofron analyzed 150 documented cassowary-on-human attacks. Twenty-two percent of attacks resulted from the bird defending itself, its eggs, or its chicks, 5 percent were triggered by somebody getting too close to the cassowary’s food, and 73 percent involved a cassowary that associated people with free meals. Many cassowaries in Australia had lost their natural shyness around humans thanks to people feeding them bananas and watermelon. Today, feeding a wild one is against the law, but the practice continues.

10 Terrifyingly Huge Birds You Should Know

AndreaWillmore/iStock via Getty Images
AndreaWillmore/iStock via Getty Images

They’re gigantic, they’re often defensive, and you wouldn’t want to run into them in a zoo after hours. Meet a few of the world’s biggest birds with attitude, from flightless giants to modern-day pterodactyls.

1. Ostrich

Everyone knows that the ostrich is the world’s biggest bird, weighing an average of 230 pounds and standing 7 feet tall (and some individuals can grow up to 9 feet). They can also chase you down: Ostriches are the fastest species on two legs, with a top speed of about 43 mph. They can maintain a swift 30 mph pace for 10 miles, making them the marathon champs of the avian world.

2. Southern Cassowary

Often called the most dangerous bird on Earth, in addition to being one of the planet’s biggest birds, the southern cassowary is roughly 150 pounds of mean. On each foot is a 5-inch claw that cassowaries use to defend themselves. At least two people have been kicked to death by cassowaries, the most recent being a Florida man who unwisely kept one of the birds as a pet.

3. Emu

Emu with eggs
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Like a smaller, shaggier ostrich, the 5- to 6-foot emu is the second-largest bird on Earth (as well as a goofy spokesbird for insurance). During the breeding season, female emus fight enthusiastically over unattached males. But the results of this mating ritual are impressive: clutches of forest-green, oval eggs that resemble giant avocados.

4. Greater Rhea

This flightless bird is named for the Titan goddess Rhea, who gave birth to all of the Olympian gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. At up to 5 feet tall and 66 pounds, the greater rhea may not seem like as much of a terror as the ostrich. But it gathers in massive flocks of up to 100 birds during the non-breeding season, so watch out if you happen to be in its South American habitat.

5. Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian pelicans
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How scary can a pelican be, you ask? When it stands almost 6 feet tall, weighs 33 pounds, and has a wingspan of 9 feet—all traits of the Dalmatian pelican—it's pretty petrifying. These scruffy-feathered monsters, native to Europe and Asia, breed in colonies of up to 250 pairs and can gulp impressive mouthfuls of fish in one go.

6. Mute Swan

One of the heaviest flying birds, mute swans look harmless as they glide over ponds, lakes, and rivers. But mute swans are far from silent when defending their families and territory. Male swans warn interlopers that they’re getting too close with a hiss, then can launch a straight-up assault, bashing the intruder with their wings. They’ll even attack kayakers, canoeists, and people just minding their own business.

7. Andean Condor

Andean condor
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This freakishly big vulture isn’t satisfied with just any carrion—it prefers large carcasses like cattle and deer for dinner. Maintaining its average weight of 25 pounds requires a lot of calories, after all. Its wingspan is slightly less than its northern cousin, the California condor, but it still reaches a dramatic 9 to 10 feet.

8. Cinereous Vulture

Another big bird with a 10-foot wingspan, this Old World vulture has excellent vision to spot carrion while it flies, and a featherless head that resists the accumulation of gore when it feeds. Though it’s intimidating to look at, the cinereous vulture plays an important role in its ecosystem by cleaning up roadkill and other dead animals.

9. Marabou Stork

Marabou stork
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As if its red-tinged wattle, black back, and dagger-esque bill weren’t alarming enough, the marabou stork is sometimes called the “undertaker bird” thanks to its Dracula-like appearance. It also eats other birds. The largest verified wingspan on a marabou stork measured 10.5 feet, though unverified reports cited a specimen with 13.3-foot span.

10. Shoebill

Shoebill storks may not be the tallest, heaviest, or widest-winged birds, but just look at that death stare. On top of having a nutcracker for a face, the 5-foot-tall shoebill leads a fearsome lifestyle. It stands absolutely still for hours to hunt prey, watching for lungfish or baby crocodiles, then spreads its wings and collapses over it while trapping the target in its bill.

Scientists Capture Video of Deepstaria, a Rarely Seen, Shapeshifting Jellyfish

OET/NautilusLive
OET/NautilusLive

Millions of years of evolution taking place beneath the sea's surface have produced some bizarre animals. Jellyfish are among the oldest—and strangest—of the bunch. Some have "transient" anuses that only form when necessary, and others can renew their life cycles indefinitely. Little is known about Deepstaria, a jellyfish recently spotted by the crew of the Nautilus research vessel in the central Pacific Ocean, but as the video below shows, it's no less unusual than other species of jellyfish.

As Live Science reports, scientists aboard the Nautilus were scanning the seafloor about halfway between the U.S. and Australia when they spotted a spooky-looking creature hovering in front of them. It soon became clear that cosplaying a ghost wasn't all it could do. The jelly unfurled its sheet-like bell to reveal a geometric mesh membrane used to distribute nutrients throughout its body—a telltale sign of Deepstaria. It spends the rest of the video putting on a show for its guests, transforming from something resembling a crumpled plastic bag to a billowing blanket shape.

Deepstaria enigmatica was discovered by the Jacques Cousteau-designed Deepstar 4000 submersible—the vessel the species is named after—in the 1960s. It's only been spotted about a dozen times in the years since, and many details of how it lives remain a mystery to researchers.

Deepstaria's most distinctive feature is its massive, flowing bell. It lacks the tentacles most jellyfish use to wrangle prey, and scientists suspect it instead uses its bell as a net when hunting. The specimen captured in this video appears to be harboring a stowaway: a bright-red, living isopod suspended inside the bell. It isn't clear if the creature hitched a ride on purpose to evade more ferocious predators, if it's some type of parasite, or if it's the jellyfish's lunch.

With so many undiscovered and understudied species living in the sea, the Nautilus research vessel is frequently stumbling upon extraordinary examples of ocean life. In 2016 alone, it recorded footage of a googly-eyed stubby squid and a mysterious purple orb.

[h/t Live Science]

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