Sunday, August 7, 2011

Ever heard of a cassowary?

Southern cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii) are a fabulous Australian species, which is unfortunately significantly threatened in north Queensland, where they currently live. This species is protected under both Queensland and Commonwealth legislation, but legislation alone will not bring this species back from the edge of extinction. 

Cassowaries are one of Australia's flightless birds and looks much like an emu in stature, but has shiny black feathers, a uniquely coloured and wattled head and neck and a large 'helmet' on its head. It grows to approximately two metres in height and weighs between 55-75kg when mature. Chicks on the other hand are camouflaged and lack the distinctive 'helmet' until mature. An interesting fact is the male is the parent that raises the chicks until they are of an age to move into their own home ranges.

In Australia, this species' distribution is between Townsville in the south and Cooktown in the north and within this area occupies only rainforest and associated habitats. Further information on its distribution and habitat can be found on the Commonwealth government's website.

This species is particularly important, as it is considered a keystone species and is attributed to the survival and maintenance of the rainforest through its role as a distributor and processor of seeds and fruit from the plants that occupy this habitat. Many plant species in these areas have co-evolved with the cassowaries and are only able to survive as long as the cassowaries are there to keep them going (as cassowaries are the only species that can transmit their seeds, due to their size).

Threats the cassowaries face within their habitat include:
  • habitat fragmentation and loss;
  • habitat degradation;
  • roads and traffic;
  • dog attack;
  • feeding by people, which brings them into urban environments;
  • diseases; and
  • natural catastrophic events such as cyclones. 
The first six dot points in this list are ongoing threats to cassowaries, with the impact of the last dot point being exacerbating by those preceding dot points. Over recent years, the area occupied by cassowaries has felt the brunt of two significant cyclone events. These cyclones tore the cassowary's habitat apart with significant loss in vegetation cover and food availability for the cassowaries. This saw many of the surviving cassowaries come into townships and cross roads where additional fatalities occurred as a result of the impact of vehicles and dogs.

This species does not have generations to live, if the impacts they currently face are not curbed. But rather they could be extinct within our lifetime. This is a real life or death situation and unlike the current political support seeking to maintain koalas just in south-east Queensland, this species needs political and social support to see its survival in the wild. Let's make a difference and become more aware of this situation and support actions that prevent or reduce some of the impacts this species is experiencing in North Queensland. Don't stand back and let a unique Australian species become extinct on your watch!
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