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Cassowary (Casuarius spp.) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • As of 2017, general agreement on three extant species of cassowary (see right panel)
  • Historically, species-level taxonomy confused by geographical variation, introductions by humans to areas outside a cassowary species’ native range, and few museum specimens (Folch et al. 2017a; Folch et al. 2017c)
    • Historically recognized races
      • Southern Cassowary (8 or more races): casuarius, tricarunculatus, bistriatus, lateralis, sclaterii, johnsonii, aruensis, and bicarunculatus
      • Northern Cassowary (4 or more races): unappendiculatus, occipitalis, aurantiacus, and philipi
      • Dwarf Cassowary (7 or more races): papuanus, goodfellowi, claudii, shawmayeri, hecki, bennetti, and picticollis
  • Some debate as to whether two or three subspecies of C. bennetti exist (Perron 2011; Folch et al. 2017b; ITIS 2017)
    • For detailed discussion, see Perron (2011)


  • Common name “cassowary” and Latin/scientific name casuarius derived from the Malay (Papuan) words kasu, kasuari, or kasavari for horned and weri for head (Boyles 1987; Marchant and Higgins 1990; Biggs 2013)
    • First printed as Casoaris by Bontius in 1658
  • Ratite: from the Latin word ratis for “raft” (Noble 1991)
    • Refers to a group of flightless birds with a breast bone (sternum) lacking a keel; muscles used in flight normally attach to this keel
      • These birds are adapted for walking and running, rather than flying or using their wings to swim


  • Southern Cassowary
    • Struthio casuarius (Folch et al. 2017a)
    • Casuarius australis (White 1913)

Common names (Pratt and Beehler 2015; Folch et al. 2017a; Folch et al. 2017c)

  • Cassowary (English)
    • Southern Cassowary; also Double-wattled Cassowary, Two-wattled Cassowary, Australian Cassowary
    • Northern Cassowary; also Single-wattled Cassowary, One-wattled Cassowary
    • Dwarf Cassowary; also Bennett’s Cassowary, Westermann’s Cassowary (westermanni), Little Cassowary, Mountain Cassowary
  • Casoar (French)
  • Kasuar (German)
  • Casuario (Spanish)

Other colloquial or local names

  • Names used by Aboriginal peoples in New Guinea
    • Muruk (Tok Pisin, sometimes called “pidgin” or “New Guinea Pidgin”) (Coates 1985)
  • Names used by Aboriginal peoples in Australia (tribe/clan in parentheses) (Biggs 2013)
    • Kutani (Kaanju Pama)
    • Boondarra (Djabugai/Tjapukai)
    • Gindaja (Yidiniji)
    • Gumbulgan (Jirrbal, Ma;Mu)
    • Gunduy (Banjun, Kuku Yalanji)
    • Punta:raa (Warrgamay, Yirrgandiji)

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • Cassowaries belong to a group of birds called “ratites” (Aves: Palaeognathae) (Worthy et al. 2014)
    • These birds are adapted for walking and running, rather than flying or using their wings to swim
    • Ratites are found throughout the Southern Hemisphere (except Antarctica), with ostriches being the only ratite with a native range extending north of the Equator
    • Living (extant) ratites include emus of Australia, kiwis of New Zealand, ostriches of Africa, and rheas of South America
      • Group also includes the extinct moa and elephant bird (Phillips et al. 2010)
    • Ability to fly evolutionarily lost multiple times among ratites (Phillips et al. 2010)
  • Cassowaries and emus developed enhanced walking and running abilities independently, after divergence of these two lineages (Worthy et al. 2014)
  • Cassowaries (Family Casuariidae) comprise a monophyletic group (sister group to emus) (Worthy et al. 2014)
    • Diverged from kiwis approximately 60 Ma (Pereira and Baker 2006; Phillips et al. 2010)
    • Diverged from emus approximately 21 Ma (Phillips et al. 2010)
    • Casuarius diverged from Dromaius approximately 10 Ma (Prum et al. 2015)
  • Forest-dwelling lifestyle and fruit diet evolved closely with the predominant forest habitat of the Cretaceous and early Tertiary periods (Bentrupperbäumer 1997)
  • Divergence of modern cassowaries needs more research
    • Naish and Perron (2014) propose that (needs testing):
      • Cassowaries originated in Australia and dispersed to New Guinea during the Pleistocene
        • Would mean Casuarius casuarius is the oldest cassowary species
      • C. bennetti and C. unappendiculatus evolved in isolation amidst sea level changes impacting land bridges between Australia and New Guinea (Middle and Late Pleistocene)

Closest known extant relatives (Pereira and Baker 2006; Phillips et al. 2010; Pratt and Beehler 2015)

  • Emu
  • Kiwi

Other close extinct relatives (Worthy et al. 2014)

  • Casuarius lydekkeri (possibly Pleistocene)
  • Emuarius gidju (Late Oligocene to Mid-Miocene, 15-24 Ma)
    • More similar to Dromaius in having a weaker running ability than Casuarius species
  • Dromaius novaehollandiae
  • Dromaius baudinianus
  • Dromaius ocypus (Pliocene, fossil from 3.9 Ma)
  • Emuarius guljaruba (Late Oligocene, fossil from 24.1 Ma)
    • Known only from one specimen

Cultural History


  • Early cassowary accounts given by Europeans on various expeditions to Australia’s Cape York region during late 1800s and early 1900s (e.g., Thomson 1935) (Bentrupperbäumer 1997)
  • In 1901, Archibald James Campbell expresses early concerns about the need to protect cassowaries (Bentrupperbäumer 1997)
  • The act of Europeans presenting cassowaries as gifts dates back to the late 1500s (Rothschild 1900)

Culture and folklore

  • Hunting rituals and taboos
    • Meat valued by subsistence communities, particularly given the difficulty of capturing and killing wild cassowaries (Coates 1985; Birdlife International 2016b)
    • Thomson (1935) mentions that elaborate rituals and taboos were associated with taking cassowary meat (these are not described in Thomson’s book)
  • Cassowaries known to hold mythological importance for Aboriginal peoples of northeastern New Guinea (Newton 1989)
    • Always represented in female form
    • Not worshiped as a goddess, but subtly underlies ritual
    • Female cassowary depicted as the creator of the world and humanity
      • Transforms into and out of human female form
      • Becomes the mother of many human children
      • Brings about civilized society
    • In another story, cassowary gives birth to a human boy, and later, through her death, brings about the creation of yams (a valued food source)
    • Also associated with initiation practices aiming to transition boys to adulthood
      • Female cassowary devours, then disgorges the boy—symbolizing the boy’s rebirth into adulthood
      • Ritual participants may adopt a cassowary-like persona
    • “To sum up, the cassowary in myth is the maker of men and their world” (Newton 1989)
  • Cassowary body parts, especially feathers and quills, used for garments and for decorating houses and boats (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
  • In New Guinea, Aboriginal peoples make elaborately-designed daggers made of cassowary bone (Newton 1989)
    • Used in hunting and warfare
    • Valuable among tribe/clan members
  • Melanesians known to tame young cassowaries and transport them between islands on canoes (Noble 1991)
    • Transported cassowary species to places outside their native range


Films and documentaries

  • Cassowaries (2009) – BBC2, Natural World
    • Narrated by David Attenborough
    • Beautiful footage of cassowaries of northeastern Australia and their forest home; discussion of cassowary conservation in relation to cyclones (see Threats to Survival)



Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Struthioniformes* — cassowaries, emus, ostriches, rheas, kiwis, tinamous

Family: Casuariidae — cassowaries, emus

Genus: Casuarius (Brisson, 1760)

Species: Casuarius casuarius (Linnaeus, 1758) — Southern Cassowary
Species: Casuarius unappendiculatus (Blyth, 1860) — Northern Cassowary
Species: Casuarius bennetti — Dwarf Cassowary

Subspecies: C. b. bennetti (Gould, 1857)
Subspecies: C. b. papuanus (Schelegel, 1871)
Subspecies: C. b. westermanni (P.L. Sclater, 1874)

Sources: del Hoyo et al. (2014), Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2017)

*Cassowaries were previously in Order Casuariiformes; as of 2017, ITIS still includes them in this order, but del Hoyo et al. (2014) include them in Struthioniformes.

Early Illustration

early illustration of a Southern Cassowary

Illustration by John Gould of a Southern Cassowary.

Plate 70; by Gould J. The Birds of Australia (supplement), 1851. Made available by the Biodiversity Heritage LibraryPublic domain.

Beliefs in New Guinea

Head of a Dwarf Cassowary

Head of a Dwarf Cassowary. Compare this to the sculpture, below.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved. Note: This is a cropped image.



Stone carving of a cassowary's head

Ancient stone sculpture of what appears to be a cassowary's head.

From Papua New Guinea, Morobe province. Date unknown.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art writes, "Among many contemporary New Guinea peoples, the cassowary is regarded as a supernaturally powerful animal and this [sculpture] indicates that such beliefs possibly extend far into prehistory."

Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection. Accession number: 1978.412.1504. Public domain.

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