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The Age of Maximum Cassowary

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Over the past several years, remote cameras have obtained images of a remarkable new species of giant flightless bird.

Yet again, the world is cockahoop and head-over-heads in awe over another thrilling, dumbfounding, truly novel zoological discovery. No, I’m not talking about the discovery of suspension-feeding anomalocarids, ancient echolocating odontocete cetaceans, or even of new tapirs (did I mention the new tapir?), but of a stupendous new living bird, discovered clinging to existence in the rainforests of Australia and globally significant in being the largest bird to ever have lived, ever. World: welcome… to the Age of Maximum Cassowary.

As described in the new issue of Nature by myself and a team of colleagues (Naish et al. 2014), photographic evidence from the field, DNA evidence, copious autoptic testimony, and historical data from arcane, overlooked sources have all been combined to build up a case for the Maximum cassowary, a new species that we officially term Casuarius maximus.

Photograph of pages from Kelledy's lost journal: our first indication that Maximum cassowary exists.

The first indication that a new, gigantic cassowary awaited discovery came from my examination of Edward P. Kelledy’s expedition log of 1845, a little-known account of an ill-fated expedition to Australia’s Cape York Peninsula. In describing and illustrating his observations, Kelledy documented a giant cassowary observed in the rainforest, substantially larger than recognised species and with proportions indicating adaptation for high-browsing. There’s no way he was clever enough to just make this shit up. Kelledy’s log ended up being archived at the Libraries of Fisheries and Oceans in Ottawa, a collection mostly destroyed in 2014 when the Canadian Government pulped and burned a substantial portion for space-saving reasons, and for the new Starbucks they have there; unfortunately, only poor photos of the document remain, one of which is shown here.

One of several Maximum Cassowary images taken by remote cameras in recent years. The size of the adjacent vegetation allows this individual's height to be estimated at 3.2 m.

Despite the best efforts of several authors to get Kelledy’s observations more widely appreciated (Smith 2004, 2005, 2006), they’ve mostly been ignored. Finally, we see him vindicated, leaving us wondering whether his writings about giant Australian rabbits and the long section at the back about merpeople and flying humanoids are really as problematic as people have generally thought.

Anyway, move forwards more than seven decades… and we come to the world of remote cameras, placed in the Australian rainforest and used to photograph infrequently recorded, difficult-to-observe non-human animals as well as sexually adventurous rednecks, bogans, housos and Queenslanders.

One of the best Maximum Cassowary remote camera images, also from GaffaMondo.

Over the past several years, remarkable images showing what appear to be gigantic cassowaries have been obtained at the GaffaMondo Field Station in Queensland. These images are so incredible that they were kept secret by the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund, their stated aim in this case being to prevent publicity and hence avoid the chance of gaining funding or encourage public interest in conservation. Through the kind efforts of wikicass and the World Authority Cryptozoology Kinship Organisation, we illegally obtained these images and – by working things out from the vegetation in the background – calculated the heights of the cassowaries in the photos (Naish et al. 2014). Standing erect, they were 3-3.5 m tall, which is as tall as, or taller than, the one observed by Kelledy in 1845. We conclude that his observations were trustworthy and that he was the first person to report this remarkable species. Why didn’t we name the new species in Kelledy’s honour? Because we didn’t want to give him due credit, that’s why. Duh.

Oh, we also turned up the contrast on the remote camera images so that we might use the trusted and reliable Digital Graphical Segregation technique. We found extra nostrils, digits and pelvic bones on the cassowaries, as well as several bigfoot-like creatures in the background. We aim to discuss this is a separate publication.

Female Maximum cassowary photographed during daylight hours. Photo by A. N. Muse.

As nice as the GaffaMondo images are, we always hoped that somebody, someday, somehow would photograph or film a Maximum cassowary in daylight. This wish was finally fulfilled in June 2013: calls had been coming in all day that a live Maximum cassowary was roaming round in plain view at Mission Beach in Queensland but we couldn’t make the trip out that day since the season 3 finale of Game of Thrones was on TV. Plus, we’d figured we’d done enough work on this project anyway. Of the several photos sent in by members of the public, here’s the best one. This big, female Maximum cassowary was a giant, perhaps 4 m tall.

The idea that the rainforest habitats of Australasia are occupied by a high-browsing megaherbivore is not wholly surprising and it always seemed odd that such an ecological niche went occupied in the region. After all, tropical Africa has Chipekwe lackadaisicalus (Brill et al. 2011); tropical South America has, err, sloths; the rainforests of Europe and North America have cherrypickers. What is surprising, however, is that this is actually the second high-browsing megaherbivore known to have inhabited the Australasian region. I talk of course of Giraffachelys, the remarkable giant, long-necked tortoise known to local people as the Row (Conway et al. 2013) and reported by explorer and adventurer Charles Miller during one of the decades of the… past.

Giraffachelys (shown here on the right) is no longer alone: Australasia now has two high-browsing megaherbivores. Image by John Conway, from Conway et al. (2013).

Just as we were wrapping up the first draft of our manuscript on our thrilling new cassowary species, a whole new avenue of research was opened up entirely by chance. What a pain – we were sure we wouldn’t need to do any more work. But, no, stupid data kept getting in the way of us finishing our paper. It’s well known that cassowaries were traded far and wide in the ancient world. Live specimens, considered highly desirable by dignitaries and heads of state, were transported from New Guinea to the north and west. It was at one of the many showbiz parties we attend that I happened to learn from Reese Witherspoon about the carved depiction of a gigantic cassowary on a piece of Cambodian stonework. It turned out that a short report on this ancient carving had been published (Utilis 1980). It wasn’t the only one – read on.

Artistic depiction of actual stone carving depicting 9th century Karnak battle cassowary and rider; image by Ethan Kocak.

Despite our implementation of ‘safe citation deletion protocol’ (an important procedure, used widely by authors in order to establish the – cough cough – novelty of their observations), we were forced to investigate this, and then to look through the archaeology and anthropology literature in order to see if there were other images of Maximum cassowaries out there. God, it was tedious. It turned out that there was copious reference in the anthropological literature not just to the presence of transported cassowaries in Asia, but to the use of armoured battle cassowaries in the cultures of tropical south-east Asia (George et al. 1963, Bear 1985, Smith 2005). Yes, ARMOURED BATTLE CASSOWARIES.

Cambodian stonework depicting man and ox with Maximum cassowary: indisputable evidence that people knew of Maximum cassowaries in ancient times and shipped them from Australasia to Asia.

Which cassowary species were the peoples of the ancient world using as battle beasts? Oh, for Christ’s sake – I don’t know, one of the small ones, mostly. But what really blew us away was the fact that some historic images clearly show that Maximum cassowaries had been transported far and wide, and that they’d been used as armoured battle steeds. The adjacent plate – an undoubtedly accurate illustration, just as good as a photo – comes from the 1876 book War Animals in War and shows a 13th century Angkorean cassowary battalion (Markus Bühler tells me that it’s more likely to be 14th century). You’ll note that they’re using both normal cassowaries as well as a twin-mounted fully barded champron-equipped Maximum cassowary with criniere and boiled leather peytral.

Authentic depiction of a 13th (or 14th) century Angkorean cassowary battalion, from the 1876 book War Animals in War.

In the end, Maximum cassowaries were always there, hidden in the literature and simply waiting for us to recognise them and tie all these disconnected threads together. If only we’d taken the time to chase these up before…. for, it might all be too late. Yeah, they might be extinct – I forgot to say this. Ok, bye!

Many thanks to the colleagues who assisted with my Maximum cassowary research: Ethan Kocak, Gareth Monger and John Conway. And for previous Tet Zoo articles on some of the topics discussed here, see…

Refs – -

Brill, E. J., Albright, J. C., Allen, R., Akridge, B., Blake, M., Bühler, M., Cau, A., Clark, E. M., Close, R., Cosmos, P., Farke, A. A., Good, M., Hanson, M., Hore, P., Hubble, D., Kahn, T. R., Kelley, B., Kosemen, C. M., Kwan, I., Lucas, G., Maltese, A., Meijer, H., Miller, Z., Moreno-Bernal, J. W., Mustill, T., Naish, D., Najib, D., Nelson, H., Pearce, L., Pharo, R., Phillips, N., Reidenberg, J., Robbins, Z., Smith, B., Stiles, J., Sutor, L., Van Tomme, M. A., Young, S. & Ziegler, K. 2011. Retardosity and phylotardation in extant sauropods demonstrates lackadaisical nature of phylogenetic change. Science 332, 133-134.

Bear, P. 1985. #uck yes. The use of armoured war cassowaries in, like, war. I knew it. My Cassowary World 5, 67-75.

Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. 2013. Cryptozoologicon Volume I. Irregular Books.

George, C., Zippy, H. & Bungle, P. 1963. Stones, bones, clones, moans, loans, Dave Hones. Depictions of ancient war cassowaries are widespread in the ancient world. Gardening and Rock Scribblings, The Story Continues. Archaeology Today 56, 12-19.

Naish, D., Monger, G., Kocak, E. & Conway, J. 2014. New giant bird species reveals impact of anthropogenic climate change and has capacity to end world poverty and allow global economic recovery. Nature 507, 523-525.

Smith, S. 2004. Efforts to get Kelledy’s observations more widely appreciated. Aprocrypha 45, 550-552.

- . 2005. Stuff happens as wave of ambiguity spreads. Aprocrypha 46, 648-655.

- . 2006. Naive authors who publish papers where the title doesn’t tell you a thing about the contents of the actual article, with comments on how annoying really long titles are. Aprocrypha 47, 49-53.

Utilis, M. 1980. Short report on ancient carving. Redde Murum 45, 505-510.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sordes 4:32 am 04/1/2014

    This mounted cassowary warriors must have deeply impressed their opponents. Indeed so much that even geographically distant cultures were influenzed. There are for example several examples of kabutos (Samurai helmets) from Japan which were forged in the shape of a giant cassowary´s crest to intimdate their enemies: look at the example here. There is even an example from Europe, a relief depiction of a warrior from a tomb at the cathedral of Freiburg, Germany, which shows a warrior from 1345-1350 wearing a bascinet-style helmet which has a tall crest in shape of a cassowary´s. This sometimes inofficially called “Smurf-helmet” is a great example how reports of the cassowary battalions found even reflections in totally different cultures, and is further proof of obvious cultural exchange between central Europe, the Indian subcontinent and Japan during the 13th and 14th century. See the image here.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Chabier G. 5:36 am 04/1/2014

    It sheds light on some Medieval stone carvings from the ancient kingdom of Aragon. Over the front door of the cathedral of Jaca, famous shelter of the true Holy Graal, there was a relief clearly depicting an armoured cassowary ridden by an amazon (probably representing the countess Andregoto Galindiç). The image was called by Aragonese peasants “O Pollet d’a Reina” (The Queen’s Little Cock), as nobody here knew what the hell is a cassowary. Unfortunately, this relief was broken to pebbles during a criticized restoration of the cathedral some years ago. Now, all we have is a cellular phone picture, taken in a cloudy day, but it’s still an overwhelming evidence of ancient trade between Australasia and SW Europe.

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  3. 3. rabewbank 7:41 am 04/1/2014

    the use of Cassowary in war goes a long way to explain
    R. K. Kinzelbach 2012 A Cassowary Casuarius casuarius
    (Linnaeus, 1758) Record from Alexandria, Egypt, in 20 B.C. (Aves, Ratitae, Casuaridae)
    The Open Ornithology Journal 5: 26-31
    full text here
    and why Cassowary transportation was developed – they can after all kill a man. Best David

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  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:46 am 04/1/2014

    I saw one juvenile, barely third of adult size.

    Link to this
  5. 5. ekocak 9:09 am 04/1/2014

    I believe some of the carvings are depicting relict populations of Homo floriensis riding regular-sized cassowaries.

    Link to this
  6. 6. DavidMarjanovic 9:58 am 04/1/2014

    ‘safe citation deletion protocol’

    So full of win! And Smith (2005, 2006) has the best paper titles ever.

    This sometimes inofficially called “Smurf-helmet”

    Aren’t those the two who always kill the Archbishop of Canterbury?

    R. K. Kinzelbach 2012 A Cassowary Casuarius casuarius
    (Linnaeus, 1758) Record from Alexandria, Egypt, in 20 B.C. (Aves, Ratitae, Casuaridae)
    The Open Ornithology Journal 5: 26-31
    full text here


    Link to this
  7. 7. Dan1701 10:34 am 04/1/2014

    It seems to me that with this huge amount of convincing evidence of an abundant Australian megaherbivore unique to the Australian rainforests, you have also unwittingly provided proof for another of the lesser-known animals of the Australian forests.

    The giant moa birds of New Zealand were predated by a species of giant eagle, which was able to kill such large and well-defended birds solely by attacking from above. It is therefore highly likely that this mode of predation was also practised in the forests of Australia by a very different predator.

    Australians are known the world over for their idiosyncratic nomenclature of the animals of Australia. Numerous small marsupials are known as “rats” despite bearing only a superficial resemblence to the placental mammals of the same name; likewise “marsupial cats” and “marsupial tigers”. It is therefore a sure bet that any colloquial Australian name for any lesser-known fauna will bear only a passing resemblence to the placental used to name the marsupial it resembles.

    Therefore I would propose that the predator in this case was (indeed, still is) a somewhat evolved relative of the koala. Like its exclusively herbivorous cousin, this predator has a very low metabolism and frankly laughably small brain, and hunts by waiting in ambush in rain forest trees, until a cassowary is stupid enough to walk beneath. It then simply jumps downwards at the prey, relying upon gravity to give the attack sufficient energy to be lethal. Such an animal is stout, stocky and sluggish of movement and generally ursinoid in form hence the common Australian name for it.

    I therefore salute you for providing sufficient evidence to conclusively prove the existence of the Drop-Bear.

    Thank you.

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  8. 8. John Harshman 11:19 am 04/1/2014

    I’m speechless. But I can still type.

    Link to this
  9. 9. PaleoStu 12:21 pm 04/1/2014

    I have heard said one of these was the basis for a twelve-bird turducken served by William Buckland on the occasion of his 55th birthday. According to an account in the first edition of ‘Pass the Gaviscon: The Life of William Buckland’ by Sir Dunley Woodcott. The dish was created as follow with one bird stuffed inside the next, according to this recipe:

    Maximum Cassowary
    Right Great Bustard
    Swan (Honking Northern)
    Goose (Lesser Striped Biddulph)
    A plucked pheasant plucked by a pheasant plucker
    Next door’s duck ‘Jemima’ (little Algernon was inconsolable for weeks)
    Burrowing Owl (by mistake)
    Savoury Duck (hollowed out)
    Bombay Duck
    Little Jenny Wren (shame!)
    Whelk (not a bird), stuffed with a marrowfat pea.

    Legend has it there was enough left over for a curry, two flans and butties for a fortnight.

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  10. 10. Yodelling Cyclist 12:55 pm 04/1/2014

    Good stuff. It’s remarkable how Darren finds these animals around early April every year.

    Lurching drastically off topic, I was wondering if I could this opportunity write a note about Bergmann’s rule for those who’ve listened to the latest Tet zoo podcast, as the comment section over there is as dead as dead thing and the audience of TZB and TZP presumably overlap.

    There will be no mention of cassowaries, so enthusiasts may safely ignore the remainder of this note.

    If I understood correctly, Darren and John questioned whether the new tyrannosaur from the arctic fitted with Bergmann’s rule, seeing as how it’s a dwarf from the high latitudes.

    It does, because there’s been a big change in the environment. Bergmann’s rule, if I understand correctly*, is predicated on the idea tat for an endotherm, heat loss is proportional to surface area of the body and generation to the volume. Consequently, in a cold environment (such as the poles) endotherms should get bigger. Generally.

    In the mesozoic, however, the poles weren’t that cold. Forests persisted within the polar circles, and I’m certain that the expert readers could rattle off a few cold intolerant species that endured in these regions. So the cold is less of a driver in the evolution of body size. What would be important for a resident species, is being able to cope with the long winter night, when the reduced primary production by plant life would cut down the amount of energy entering the food chain and becoming available for a large predator. I don’t think there’s a good comparison for an animal that has to endure long periods in the dark but not extreme cold, without considering caves. Possibly an analogy could be made to highly seasonal, non polar environments, such as those dependent on wet seasons and the like.

    If you are an active predator in the mesozoic boreal forest in the winter night, I guess you need to have minimal energy requirements (so, small (in relative terms compared with relatives further south) and well insulated), good senses and possibly smart enough to find food which maybe hibernating.

    Anyway, just some thoughts from a rank amateur. In my mind, mesozoic Bergmann’s rule runs counter to the Cenozoic.

    Please keep the (deserved) criticism polite!

    All the best.

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  11. 11. Yodelling Cyclist 12:55 pm 04/1/2014

    *I may not…

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  12. 12. sjoshs 2:36 pm 04/1/2014

    I dispute these findings. I think upon further investigation and DNA analysis the fact shall become clear that the “giant” cassowary you so describe is merely the adult form of cassowaries we now consider “adults”. In other words, the cassowaries we recognize now are merely babies of this giant one. Nice attempt at inking a new name!

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  13. 13. Heteromeles 3:07 pm 04/1/2014

    @sjoshs: so you’re saying that cassowaries are merely neotentic cassowaries? What are dwarf cassowaries then? My head’s hurting.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Heteromeles 3:11 pm 04/1/2014

    Given the overwhelming evidence for highly complex social structures seen in wild cassowary flocks, especially their strict, linear dominance hierarchy and deeply embedded submission to the authority of more dominant flock members, I’m quite confident that cassowary cavalries could work together in a battle.

    Really. They’d be just as incredible as all those tiger-riding cavalry heroes out of myth. In fact, those should be researched too, because they’re undoubtedly true as well. Because, as we all know, and as Mythbusters definitively proved last month, it’s easy to herd cats of any species, and therefore cat large enough to carry a rider can be tamed to the saddle and trained to fight in formation in battle.

    Link to this
  15. 15. GrantHarding 4:58 pm 04/1/2014

    It’s good to see that George et al. have made another excellent contribution to the wide Rainbow of literature that’s already out there on the subject.

    Link to this
  16. 16. brundlefly 7:35 pm 04/1/2014

    I’ve met normal cassowaries before. Given the size of these ones, does anyone have any thoughts on why there is still non-cassowary life left on Earth?

    Link to this
  17. 17. Halbred 8:09 pm 04/1/2014

    Oh, now I get to talk about my native Alaskan fauna (this is directed largely @Yodelling Cyclist).

    Southcoastal Alaska (where I live) has plenty of big terrestrial mammals: moose, black bears, brown bears, Kodiak bears, and buffalo (not native). Farther into the interior, Kodiak bears disappear but you pick up coyotes, wolves and caribou. Yet farther north, into the high latitudes, all you see are polar bears, musk ox, and caribou–the next-largest carnivore is the Arctic fox.

    Polar bears are huge, yes, but they’re incredibly well insulated and ridiculously specialized for hunting seals. Caribou aren’t especially big, but they travel is massive herds all over northern part of the continent at different times of the year. Musk ox are year-long residents, but they are actually really small (you’d be surprised) and covered in ridiculously thick, matted hair.

    As for Alaska’s dinosaurs, note that the temperatures were roughly equivalent to the modern Northeastern United States: not especially hot in the summers, but dipped towards freezing in the winter. More importantly, given that the North American continent was FURTHER north in the Maastrichtian, our North Slope dinosaurs would have endured longer periods of seasonal darkness than modern Arctic animals deal with.

    It’s also interesting to note that both our edmontosaurs and pachyrhinosaurs aren’t any smaller–in terms of body size–than Albertan representatives or more compact (AFAIK), yet they both probably stayed up there all year without caribou-like migration. It’s the two theropods that are different: our Troodon is twice as large as the ones in Montana while Nanuqsaurus is smaller than Albertosaurus. That is, both theropods are approaching a similar body size.

    What any of this has to do with Bergmann’s “Rule,” I’m not sure, but it’s very interesting.

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  18. 18. LeeB 1 8:26 pm 04/1/2014

    Congratulations on your ground breaking study.
    This also suggests a novel origin for Harpagornis.
    It is already known that it’s closest relative is the living Australian little eagle,and it was thought that it’s ancestors grew larger after it arrived in New Zealand.
    However it now seems possible that it actually evolved it’s large size in Australia while preying on Maximum Cassowaries, and the Harpagornis known from New Zealand were actually insular dwarfs.

    This raises the question of whether or not it still survives on Cape York; and potentially in New Guinea also.

    If it does it would explain why so many people keep vanishing while out tramping; obviously the eagle kills them and carries the bodies back to their eyries.
    And to avoid panic among tourists the government has been hushing this up, partly by putting out rumours about drop bears, which are not nearly as dangerous to humans as the eagle.

    Also the tendency of small eagles in the genus Aquila to evolve giant size when in the presence of giant flightless birds would explain the parallel evolution of the Rukh/Roc on islands in the western Indian Ocean.


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  19. 19. Jerrold Alpern 9:09 pm 04/1/2014

    If I were a Cassowary
    On the plains of Timbuctoo,
    I would eat a missionary,
    Coat and bands, and hymn-book too.

    - Bishop Samuel Wilberforce
    ref.’s, see:

    Sizes of bird & missionary not given in ref.’s.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Torvosuchus 1:53 am 04/2/2014

    Clearly, this is the most parsimonious explanation for why Australia’s soils are so depleted relative to other landmasses: these hyper-herbivores consumed so much plant matter, only to migrate off the continent, that few nutrients now remain. The depauperate megafauna of modern Australia is obviously a by-product of this process.

    Yet that would have to have started long before the international trade in martial cassowaries, concluding sometime around 50,000 BP, when the other Australian megafauna died out. Most probably, they escaped from Australia by crossing geologically sensible and now-sunken land bridges through Lemuria, which itself is now below the waves, obliterating all evidence of their passage.

    This is strictly deductive evidence, but still, no better hypothesis for this phenomenon has ever been devised.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Mike from Ottawa 12:11 pm 04/2/2014

    As a member of the Canadian federal public service, I can assure readers shocked by Darren’s claim that the Library of of the Fisheries and Oceans Department, which held Kelledy’s log book, pulped and burned it. We at the Canadian federal government would never do that to a precious historical record of mankind’s quest to understand his world. Recognizing the value of such relics, we ecologically responsibly sell such things to paper recyclers and Kelledy’s log is likely performing yeoman service to mankind in the form of a cardboard sleeve on a paper cup of one of Starbucks’ fine coffee products.

    Link to this
  22. 22. metamorphmuses 12:09 am 04/3/2014

    Ah! For a moment, you got me… nice one.

    Link to this
  23. 23. busterggi 8:52 am 04/3/2014

    And new channels for research remain! Judging from the Cambodian carving there is some connection between these cassowaries and Octopus gigantius or possibly the Cthulhu cult.

    Please discuss on your podcast.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:19 am 04/3/2014

    “R. K. Kinzelbach 2012 A Cassowary Casuarius casuarius
    (Linnaeus, 1758) Record from Alexandria, Egypt, in 20 B.C. (Aves, Ratitae, Casuaridae)
    The Open Ornithology Journal 5: 26-31″

    Sure this is not a chicken of one of these slim, long-legged Asian fighting races?

    Link to this
  25. 25. naishd 10:27 am 04/3/2014

    Jerzy — I agree, I’ve also been saying that it looks like a fighting chicken.

    Link to this

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