Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

The Age of Maximum Cassowary


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.

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

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