One of the most spectacular attractions of the Daintree Rainforest is the Southern Cassowary. Of the three extant Cassowary species, the Southern Cassowary is the largest, and the only species found in Australia. Cassowaries are flightless birds related to emus and ostriches. Standing as tall as a person, this bird is Australia's heaviest land animal, though some emus do stand taller. These birds have a long lifespan, with reports of some growing to reach 40 years of age. Cassowaries are found only in north-east Australia, in Papua New Guinea and on some of the surrounding islands.
Cassowaries are sadly becoming rare. Both the Commonwealth and Queensland governments recognise this bird as endangered. Scientists estimate that there might be only 1,200 - 1,500 of these birds in Australia.
Why are cassowaries endangered?
The cassowary's numbers have dwindled for a number of reasons.
Deforestation is a major factor. The Daintree Rainforest was heavily logged up until 1987: this destroyed much of the cassowary's habitat. The cassowary is a territorial bird, and most birds that lost their territory when it was destroyed were unsuccesful in establishing a new one.
Not only was the amount of habitat reduced, however, but it was also fragmented into isolated pockets. Cassowaries then had to cross open fields, exposing them to predators. Logging brought with it roads and vehicles, leading many birds to be run over as they crossed the road.
Introduced species have also wreaked havoc for the cassowary. Dogs hunting in packs have killed many of the birds, pursuing them until they are exhausted, and then ravaging them. Feral pigs pose a different challenge, by competing with the birds for the same food sources.
Why does this matter?
First of all, cassowaries are spectacular animals. Their size alone makes them an impressive sight: with females weighing in at an average of 59 kilograms, these are some truly massive birds. The adults have a very remarkable bright red and blue plumage on their necks, with a distinctive "helmet" on top. The name "cassowary" itself comes from a papuan phrase meaning "horned head". Their behaviour is also fascinating: they are often heard before they're seen, making a loud, low rumbling sound to advertise their presence.
But even more imporantly, the cassowary is a "keystone species" - many other species in the fascinating Daintree Rainforest ecosystem depend on this bird. The cassowary is one of nature's gardeners: it eats the fruit of many trees and other plants, distributing their seeds through the rainforest. The bird's digestive tract is very gentle on the seeds, and will hold the seeds for approximately ten hours, ensuring that the seeds are planted some distance from the parent plant with a fresh pile of manure to act as a fertiliser. Some of these tree seeds are so large that no other animal can swallow them. This makes these plant species completely dependent on the cassowary for their survival - it is estimated that some 70-100 species of plants depend either entirely or mostly on the cassowary to spread their seed. The animals that in turn depend on these plants and the ecosystem they create are thus also dependent on the cassowary.
It's no exaggeration to say that without the cassowary, the Daintree Rainforest could not exist in the way that we know it.
Seeing a cassowary in the wild
Cassowaries are shy, and have become few in number. For a big, colourful bird, they are surprisingly good at blending in to the surrounding rainforest. This makes them hard to spot.
If you come face to face with one of these birds, be careful. They are unpredictable when threatened, and can potentially cause serious injury with their razor sharp claws. Back away and admire from a distance. Do not feed cassowaries.
To see cassowary birds, book one of our Daintree Forest Tours.