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Five Fascinating Facts About the Amazing Cassowary

They may look pretty scary, but they’re actually pretty cool

"Endangered, you say?" (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

What animal is around six feet tall, weighs over 100 pounds and can kick people to death?

The southern cassowary, of course. The bird, which is important to Queensland, Australia’s unique tropical rainforests, is the one most commonly associated with the name “cassowary” although there are two other species of cassowary.

Cassowaries have a reputation for being scary, and that reputation is somewhat well deserved. But they're also fascinating. In celebration of World Cassowary Day on September 24, here are five important facts about one of the world’s coolest creatures.

1. Yes, they could absolutely kill you

Cassowaries, writes Jacob Brogan for Smithsonian.com, resemble “an ostrich as described by H.P. Lovecraft, or maybe a turkey fused with a velociraptor.” They look deadly and they often are. Cassowaries have one five-inch claw on a toe of each foot, which they can use to kick out at fast speeds. The cassowary’s nickname of “murderbird” is well deserved: together with emus, they are among the few species of bird definitively known to have killed at least one human, writes Darren Naish for Scientific American.

2. They can jump five feet off the ground

“Attacking cassowaries charge and kick, sometimes jumping on top of the victim,” Naish writes. But cassowaries don’t just do little hops: according to Mark Manicini writing for Mental Floss, they can jump up to five feet in the air. They can make the jumps as part of their attack. “They’re great sprinters to boot, with a top running speeds of 30 miles per hour," Mancini writes.

3. They have giant fingernails on their heads

As if that wasn’t all intimidating enough, a cassowary has the protection of its “casque,” a hard helmet on the top of its head made of a spongy material covered in keratin.

“No one knows for certain why cassowaries have a casque,” writes the San Diego Zoo. “It could reveal a bird’s age or dominance, or be used as a sort of helmet or shock absorber that protects the bird's head as it pushes through the rain forest underbrush.” It’s also possible the casque helps the cassowary make some of its calls, the zoo writes.

4. They don’t like you, either

“Left to themselves and treated with respect, cassowaries are shy, peaceable, and harmless,” writes Olivia Judson for Natonal Geographic. “In Australia the last recorded instance of a cassowary killing a person was in 1926—and that was in self-defense.” Cassowaries are best left to themselves. Like many other wild creatures who are ill-suited to keep company with humans, they just want to live out their lives eating plants and small animals, occasionally getting into kick fights with inanimate objects (according to Brogan) and mating with their weird, weird genitalia.

5. Australia is trying to protect them, because they’re really endangered

In fact, although cassowary have gone more than 90 years without killing a human (though they have injured more than 100 people, according to Naish), human activity in the past century have driven the birds almost to extinction in Queensland. Dogs can kill cassowaries, as can feral pigs–but like many other wild animals, cars and habitat loss are both big factors in the decline of Casuarius casuarius johnsonii, the unique subspecies of the southern cassowary found in Queensland’s Wet Tropics region.

This forest, the oldest rainforest in the world, is itself endangered, writes Lulu Morris for National Geographic. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site. Like its biggest, scariest, flappiest resident, it needs protecting.  

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