by Joeri Kalwij
The cassowaries are ratites (flightless birds without a keel on their sternum bone) in the genus Casuarius native to the tropical forests of New Guinea, nearby islands, and northeastern Australia. There are three extant species recognized today. The most common of these, the Southern Cassowary, is the third tallest and second heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu.
Cassowaries feed mainly on fruit, although all species are truly omnivorous and will take a range of other plant food including shoots, grass seeds, and fungi in addition to invertebrates and small vertebrates. Cassowaries are very shy, but when provoked they are capable of inflicting injuries to dogs and people, although fatalities are extremely rare.
All three cassowary species have a casque, also called a helmet, that starts to develop on top of their head at one to two years of age. The casque is made of a sponge-like material and covered with a thick layer of keratin, the same thing our fingernails are made of. Although it is quite sturdy, the casque can be squeezed in the middle fairly easily.
No one knows for certain why cassowaries have a casque. It could reveal a bird’s age or dominance, or be used as a sort of helmet or shock absorber that protects the bird’s head as it pushes through the rain forest underbrush.
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