Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Extant Theropod Appreciation #5: The Cassowary

A week ago Monday, Michael Barton of Dispersal of Darwin reviewed Switek's Written in Stone, and with the review he shared a clip of a program called Paleoworld. It aired on The Learning Channel in the US in the mid-nineties (apparently it airs on the Science Channel now). I have to share it here. It's classic Robert Bakker.

I love Bakker's Thanksgiving table mini-lecture, but what really grabbed me when I watched this was seeing that gorgeous cassowary at the very beginning. That's a dinosaur. Straight, no chaser. A living, breathing dinosaur. Look into those eyes. Lovely. I want one for my yard.

Here's another great video, this one of an unexpected meeting with a cassowary. I love the way bird and human are sizing each other up. Given the cassowary's reputation as a dangerous bird (perfectly suited to one of Velociraptor's closest living relatives), the man's wariness is warranted.

That head adornment is called a casque, and besides being a display feature, the cassowary uses it as a tool to clear the ground as they forage for food. Well before birds' theropod origin was scientific consensus, Barnum Brown named Corythosaurus casuarius for it, one of the crested duckbills. Decades later, C. casuarius was one of the lambeosaurs whose ontogeny was studied by Peter Dodson. He used the cassowary as "an analogy" for the lambeosaurs of Alberta's Oldman formation, an example of an extant animal that goes through the same kind of radical changes in skull structure in adolescence. Jack Horner then cited Dodson in his and Goodwin's paper lumping Dracorex and Stygimoloch with Pachycephalosaurus (not everyone agrees that the change they propose are analogous to how cassowary skulls develop, though; the Horner and Goodwin Pachycephalosaurus grows and resorbs bone while the cassowary simply grows it, albeit quickly and dramatically).

Though it's a ratite, one of the big, ground-dwelling birds who aren't necessarily acclaimed for their songs, the vocalizations of cassowaries are of special interest; they have been found to employ very low-frequency sounds, at the lower limit of human hearing, for communication.

The cassowary gives me goosebumps (pardon the pun) when I see it; there's no other that reminds me so strongly of a dinosaur. I know it's a silly sensation, more grounded in emotion than reason, but I willingly submit to it. I think that humans need those emotional queues to give the pursuits of science meaning beyond truth, to create those strange feelings of connectivity with the rest of nature that have so entranced us for our history as a sentient species. That's a bit of me waxing Scott Sampsonish.

Cassowary Portrait
Painting by Istvan Kadar, shared at Flickr.


  1. Sweet Raptor Jesus, and here I am crapping myself when I encounter a wild turkey (ten feet away from inside the car, mind you). I am *amazed* that dude didn't get torn to pieces.

  2. Yeah. I probably would not have been as composed as that guy. But I'd love the chance to find out...

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  4. I have seen a picture of a cassowary doing the 'raptor leap' so often portrayed in paleoart... Found it:
    Nice to have a massive piece of iron handy!

  5. Whoa! I'd love to see that in motion! New mission: find video of a leaping cassowary. I'm rewatching Attenborough's Life of Birds right now and kind of sad there's no cassowary action, so far. I'm pretty happy with the science/nature content on Netflix instant (which with Hulu is my substitute for home cable service) but I'm starting to run out. Need more!

  6. While is is sad that the cassowary didn't make it into Life of Bird, I'm almost positive I've seen (or at least heard) David Attenborough with a cassowary before. Maybe on an episode of Natural World.

  7. The only other bird that really makes me feel that way about dinosaurs is the hoatzin.

  8. As I read this page, with my other eye I am watching a programme called Inside Nature's Giants on UK's Channel Four. This week, they are diseccting a roadkilled cassowary - and yes, they have action film of one doing a raptor leap and trying to kick a hat to death (don't ask). It's extremely impressive.

    As I post this the programme still has 15 mins to run but when it's finished, you can go to and watch it as a download, at least until a week from now.


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