CASSOWARIES IN THE DAINTREE

There is a beautiful Aboriginal Dreamtime story of how the cassowary came to have its hard helmet (casque) and to become protector and leader of the rainforests of Far North Queensland.

The ‘Protector of the Rainforest’ is probably quite an accurate name for the Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) of the Wet Tropics region. The cassowary is part of the ratite group, a family of flightless birds, including the emu, ostrich, kiwi and rheas. Also included in this family are the now extinct moas and elephant birds. Today there are only three species left of cassowaries. The Dwarf (Casuarius bennetti) and the Northern (Casuarius unappendiculatus) Cassowaries are found in New Guinea, whilst our Southern Cassowaries are distributed in southern New Guinea, Indonesia and north eastern Australia.

What makes these majestic birds earn the name the ‘Protector of the Rainforest’? Is it their physical strength and ability to inflict serious injury with the sharp claws on their feet or is there something non-confrontational and somewhat passive that they do to preserve and defend the rainforests of the Daintree?

These large flightless giants with their casques, shiny black feathers, blue faces and long red wattles hanging from their necks have an important role in the Daintree Rainforest. Rainforests have giant trees which tower over many and have large fruits with large seeds. Many of the trees of the Daintree rely primarily on the Southern Cassowary to distribute and germinate their seeds. Reaching heights of about 1.8 m, these flightless birds are able to swallow whole fruits the size of large eggs, render seeds more likely to sprout once passing through their digestive systems and then distribute them to new areas of the rainforest. Fruits like the Cassowary Plum (Cerbera floribunda) and Trunk Bumpy (Ryparosa kurrangii) have mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships with the cassowary. These fruits supply food for the cassowary and the cassowary in return spreads the seeds of the trees.

Apart from the special attention given by various organisations that collect seeds, set up tree nurseries and then actively plant out the saplings at a later stage, the Southern Cassowary really is the keystone species. They play a crucial role in the Daintree Rainforest ecosystem and without them this tropical rainforest environment may even cease to exist.

At the Daintree Wilderness Lodge we have a few Southern Cassowaries who have claimed our part of the Daintree Rainforest as their territory. They are not only a huge tourist attraction, a great wildlife photography subject and a highlight to most of our guests’ experience, they are also our ‘Protector of the Daintree Rainforest’.