Cassowaries are genus of large animals from Australia, New Guinea, and Indonesia. While they look like birds, cassowaries also are incredibly large and also flightless. For many, that raises the question of just what exactly is a cassowary. Is a cassowary a bird, or something else? Let’s dig in.
Is a Cassowary a Bird?
First off, yes, a cassowary is a bird. It belongs to the biological class Aves, which includes all modern birds.
There are some key similarities between birds and mammals
- Both have hearts and are vertebrates
- In addition, birds and mammals share being warm-blooded
Yet, with birds having evolved from dinosaurs (and being their closest living relatives), there are some key traits that define birds.
First, birds contain wings. While most birds fly (more on that below), flying is not a requirement to be a bird. Cassowaries are flightless birds, which makes them rare, but they still contain wings.
Birds also are feathered. While the cassowary has a “fluffy” appearance, that’s not hair on their body but rather glossy feathers that are fairly unique across birds.
Birds also have beaks, a lightweight skeleton (which most species use for flying), and lay hard-shelled eggs. Cassowary eggs are unique, they’re a lime-colored green and very large in size. Cassowaries have beaks that connect to a large “casque” on their head that gives a unique appearance. Its proposed that this casque is used to help cassowaries cut through the tress and brush when running at fast speeds.
Add it up and while flightless, cassowaries share all the common traits among birds.
The Classification of Cassowaries
Cassowaries are connected to other large, flightless birds through the clade Palaeognathae which includes ostriches, tinamous, rhea, emus, and kiwis. Overall there are 60 species in this clade, while all other birds belong to the much larger Neognathae, which contains more than 10,000 species of birds.
The closest relative to the cassowary is the emu, which belongs to the same order. There are three species of cassowaries and just a single species of emu.
Its believed that cassowaries first evolved shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs, about 60 million years ago. The cassowary shares incredibly similar appearance to a recently discovered dinosaur, which points to cassowaries being one of the closest remaining links to a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
Are Cassowaries A Threatened Bird Species?
Of the 10,000 species in the world today, about 12% are currently threatened with extinction. As of 2021, all three cassowary species are listed as Least Concern.
That hasn’t always been the case as the dwarf cassowary was previously listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN until 2013, but its status has changed. Both the dwarf and northern cassowaries have relatively smaller geographic ranges that cover only a portion of the island New Guinea and some smaller surrounding islands. The southern cassowary also lives in Australia, through its range is limited to the Cape York peninsula in Queensland.