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.
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).
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.