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Cassowary (Casuarius spp.) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Body measurements

AttributeSouthern CassowaryNorthern CassowaryDwarf Cassowary
Weight Males: 29-55 kg (64-121 lb)
Females: up to 76 kg* (167 lb)
No reliable estimates available.
Weight more similar to Southern than
Dwarf Cassowary—p
ossibly up to 60 kg.
 Up to 29 kg (63 lb)
Height 130-170 cm (51-70 in) 120-150 cm (47-59 in) 100-110 cm (39-43 in)

*Biggs (2013) states that female Southern Cassowaries can reach 70 kg (154 lb).

Sources
Southern Cassowary: Biggs (2013); Folch et al. (2017a); weight data from Latch (2007)
Northern Cassowary: Folch et al. (2017c)
Dwarf Cassowary: Folch et al. (2017b); weight data from Mack and Jones (2003) and Andrew Mack, personal communication, 2017

General Appearance

(Coates 1985; Biggs 2013; Pratt and Beehler 2015; Folch et al. 2017a; Folch et al. 2017b; Folch et al. 2017c, and as noted)

Body and wings

  • Flightless bird; wings and tail feathers very short
  • 1.0-1.7 m (3.2-5.6 ft) tall
  • Similar to ostriches, emus, rheas, and kiwis in body shape
  • Small, “reptilian-like” claw on second digit of each wing

Head and neck (adults)

  • Prominent, laterally compressed casque on top of head
    • Shape and size varies (sometimes geographically)
      • Appears helmet-shaped from the side
      • May be curved, peaked, triangular, or flattened
    • Many functions proposed; a 2019 study suggests casque radiates heat during hot weather (Eastick et al. 2019)
      • Possibly additional functions as a social ornament of age, sex, and status and in producing sound (Naish and Perron 2014)
        • May be the product of mutual sexual selection (both sexes evaluate partners on basis of mate quality)
    • Casque structure
  • Wattles present in Southern and Northern Cassowaries
    • Wattle (definition): long, hanging folds of skin of the foreneck
    • Southern Cassowary typically has two wattles (rarely one, sometimes three)
      • Variable in form
        • May be short or long
          • Up to 18 cm, or 7 in, in length
        • Usually a forked wattle on front of neck, but sometimes two, separated wattles on sides of neck
    • Northern Cassowary usually has one wattle (sometimes two wattles)
      • Yellow, red, or blue
      • Small and wart-like
    • Dwarf Cassowary has no wattle or a small wattle “nub”
  • Brightly colored areas of delicate, bare skin in adults
    • Range of blues (from light to dark), turquoise, purple
    • Pink and red hindneck and wattles; also foreneck in Northern Cassowary
    • In some individuals, skin colors changes with the bird’s mood/level of excitement
  • Brown or light brown eyes
    • Dull-yellow iris in Northern Cassowary
  • Short, black bill
    • Laterally compressed (Rothschild 1900)
    • Can open its mouth very wide; able to swallow large food items (Coates 1985)

Legs and feet (adults)

Differences in juveniles

  • Small casque and wattles (develop with age)
  • Dull bare parts
  • Orange legs
  • See Life Stages for description of chicks

Plumage

(Coates 1985; Pratt and Beehler 2015; Folch et al. 2017a)

Adults

  • Black, satin-like feathers on neck, body, and tail
    • Plumage coarse and shaggy
    • Helps with thermoregulation (Biggs 2013)
  • Feathers loose, fluffy, hair-like; drooping
    • Lack the barbicels (feather-connecting structures) that flying birds have (Davies 2002)

Juveniles

  • Usually uniformly brown or orange-brown in color

Chicks (Folch et al. 2017a)

  • Reddish-brown head and upper neck
  • Upperparts of body creamy white, with broad dark brown stripes running from the chick’s lower neck towards its tail; stripes more narrow on thighs
    • Often called "stripies" (Nicole LaGreco, personal communication 2017)
    • Presumably disruptive coloration (to break up the outline/figure of the chick) (Pratt and Beehler 2015)
  • Light colored abdomen, without bands

Unsual feathers

  • Some flight feathers differ from other birds; have stout shafts, but no vanes, barbs, barbules (Andrew Mack, personal communication 2017)
  • "V"-shaped feather caused by a main shaft and aftershaft of similar lengths; unusual, possibly unique to cassowaries (Andrew Mack, personal communication 2017)

Sexual Dimorphism

Sexes similar-looking (Folch et al. 2017a; Folch et al. 2017b; Folch et al. 2017c, except as noted)

  • To untrained observer, difficult to tell the sexes apart
  • Females
    • Bare parts said to be brighter (but cannot use this distinguish females from males; Pratt and Beehler 2015)
    • Casque tends to be taller
    • Wattle (hanging foreneck skin) longer
    • Body size of mature females larger (Bentrupperbäumer 1997)
      • Observed in Southern and Northern Cassoswaries
  • Males
    • Some male Southern Cassowaries with slightly longer tail feathers (about 20 cm, or 8 in, longer) (Bentrupperbäumer 1997)

Identification

Distinguishing the three cassowary species (Folch et al. 2017a, and where noted)

  • Southern and Northern Cassowaries similar in body size; Dwarf Cassowary much smaller
  • Southern Cassowary has most pronounced casque
    • Casque of Northern Cassowary has a similar shape, but is sometimes brownish, greenish, or bluish, and not as curved; often with flattened areas on top (Andrew Mack, personal communication, 2017)
  • Southern Cassowary has pronounced red wattles and more blue extending down the foreneck; blue skin between casque and eye
  • Northern Cassowary has a large orange, red, yellow, or blue area on its lower foreneck (Pratt and Beehler 2015; Folch et al. 2017c)
  • Northern Cassowary has pinkish longitudinal bands on bill (Folch et al. 2017c)
  • Northern and Dwarf Cassowaries have a larger bulge on lower face than Southern Cassowary (Folch et al. 2017b; Folch et al. 2017c)
  • Dwarf Cassowary has a dark face (with black and/or blue extending below eye) (Pratt and Beehler 2015; Andrew Mack, personal communication 2017)
    • Some Southern Cassowaries may have black between the bill and eye
  • Dwarf Cassowary foreneck feathering extends higher up than other two species; lacks a large, colored patch at the base of the foreneck (Folch et al. 2017b)
  • Dwarf Cassowary casque is more low, black, and triangular than other two species (Folch et al. 2017b); wedge-shaped (Pratt and Beehler 2015)
  • Dwarf Cassowary, C. b. westermanni (birds on Bird’s Head/Vogelkop), has a white patch near behind its eye

Other Physical and Physiological Characteristics

Digestion and excretion

  • Short large intestine (Noble 1991; Webber and Woodrow 2004; Biggs 2013)
    • Seeds pass through the digestive tract quickly and remain viable

Respiration

  • Small lungs, relative to body size (Biggs 2013)

Resting

  • Possess tendons that allow them to lie on the ground for extended periods (Biggs 2013)
    • Not as developed in other ratites

Footprints (Marchant and Higgins 1990)

  • Very large
  • Three-toed
  • Distinctive—used by scientists and hunters to detect cassowary presence

Northern Cassowary

Northern Cassowary

The Northern Cassowary has a large casque and (commonly) a single wattle.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Dwarf Cassowary

Dwarf Cassowary

Like other ratites (emus, ostriches), cassowaries have loose, satin-like feathers on their neck, body, and tail.

Unlike the other two species, the Dwarf Cassowary have a black casque, black on their face, and no wattles (see Identification).

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Claws Made for Walking—and Kicking

Cassowary feet

Cassowaries have thick, powerful legs and feet.

Aside from fleeing danger, that dagger-like inner toe claw is their best defense.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

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