I have a great liking for cassowaries, and I’ve had good reason to write about them several times. I’ve also had fun playing with preserved specimens and skeletons – something I must elaborate on at some time. Back in 2006 – the days of Tet Zoo ver 1 – I blogged some of my cassowary-related musings, and in the interests of both recycling and of getting credit for stuff I’ve already gotten credit for before, I repost them here. Partly due to laziness, I never did include the article you’re about to read – some say one of my all-time greatest articles ever – in the book Tetrapod Zoology Book One* (much to Chris Taylor’s disappointment), but evidently I should have.
* Used copies now for sale at just £738.
Please remember that the article hasn’t been properly updated, and is pretty much as it was when first published in 2006 [the image above is explained below]. Some of you will be well aware that the Rothschild collection has been very much in the news over the last few years. Anyway…
Lord Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) [shown here (from wikipedia), with trained zebra] was quite probably the most important and prolific collector of zoological specimens during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Working from his museum and home at Tring, Hertfordshire (still the site of both his museum and the Natural History Museum bird collections), he amassed an unparalleled collection of literally thousands of insects, bird eggs, bird skins, mammal skins and other specimens. Rothschild appears to have been specially, if not almost fanatically, interested in a number of very specific groups of animals, among which were birds of paradise (see Fuller 1995), fleas, and cassowaries.
Amassing one of the biggest accumulations of cassowaries in the world, Rothschild’s collection includes no fewer than 62 mounted cassowaries. These specimens evidently prove rather problematic for the curators at Tring; Whitehead & Keates (1981) wrote “for some reason Lord Rothschild decided to have no less than 65 [sic] of these large cassowaries mounted as if for future exhibition, and as such they make a unique collection and something of a headache for the curator”. This collection is augmented by many skins and skeletal specimens! Rothschild demanded that special attention be given to the mounting of cassowaries, and he only regarded one taxidermist – a man named Doggett – as able to complete the task with satisfactory results. Doggett was paid £30 per cassowary mount by Rothschild; a sum regarded as extraordinarily high by Rothschild’s curators and relatives. Consequently, this arrangement was curtailed in 1908 by Charles Rothschild, Walter’s brother. The more than 60 mounted specimens eventually cost over £2000.
Rothschild studied these specimens with the aim of producing a monograph that described the different forms. He regarded it as essential that his descriptions were based on live specimens, not just on skins, so he collected all the live cassowaries he could to keep and observe. Little has been published on how Rothschild and his staff maintained the birds, but it is known that they were not kept in a tropical house, nor heated at all. He once wrote, “My laying female has lived through 6 English winters without heat” (M. Rothschild 1983, p. 103) [Miriam Rothschild’s book shown here (hey, more trained zebras): essential reading for anyone interested in Rothschild or his collections].
Given that cassowaries are famous for being pugnacious, you might wonder whether the cassowaries were ever the cause of any trouble. Sure enough, cassowaries were partially responsible for the harsh attitude Rothschild’s father (Nathaniel Rothschild) had of his son’s collection. In 1888, one of the cassowaries that roamed free in Tring Park attacked Nathaniel’s horse. However, Rothschild did complete his work and, in 1900, published his definitive monograph on the birds (Rothschild 1900). It’s a lavishly illustrated work in which several new species and subspecies are named based on the colour of their necks or configuration of their wattles – features now regarded as too variable for much basis in taxonomy.
Though it might seem that Rothschild’s work on cassowaries had now reached fruition, he continued to collect the birds and started to amass a secret collection of live specimens. While his father was prohibiting the further purchase of specimens, Rothschild wrote to his collectors to continue shipping live cassowaries, but to keep them at a safe location, rather than send them straight to Tring.
Rothschild had a dark secret: he was being blackmailed by a wealthy aristocratic former mistress. Aided by her husband, this woman eventually forced Rothschild, in 1931, to sell the better part of his ornithological collection to the American Museum of Natural History for $225,000 – about a dollar a specimen. The blackmailer remains anonymous but Miriam Rothschild (1983) stated that she is aware of her true identity. Despite this tremendous and devastating loss, Rothschild could not part with his cassowaries and all of the specimens – the mounts, skins and skeletons – were retained at Tring. Today they represent an invaluable collection with a fascinating history.
The enigma that is, or was, Sclater’s cassowary
Sclater’s cassowary Casuarius philipi, was named by Rothschild in 1898 for a captive specimen kept in the Zoological Gardens at London. Shipped from Calcutta and named in honour of Philip L. Sclater (who is also commemorated in the name of the C. casuarius subspecies C. c. sclateri*), it was probably captured in New Guinea and is worthy of note because of the extraordinary morphology Rothschild described for it. In fact, to Rothschild, Sclater’s cassowary was the most distinctive of all cassowaries.
* Originally named in 1878 as a new species. Rothschild (1900) referred to it as D’Albertis’s cassowary. It’s shown in the adjacent photo, from Rothschild (1900).
On naming the species in 1898, Rothschild thought that, despite its brown feathers, it was fully grown and therefore unlike other cassowaries in colour. Over the years however, its feathers turned as black as those of any other cassowary. However, others of its features remained highly unusual. Not only were its feathers structurally more like those of an emu than of a cassowary, the feathers from its rump and tail region were extraordinarily long – so long that they dragged on the ground.
Its casque was described as intermediate between that of the Single-wattled cassowary C. unappendiculatus and Bennett’s cassowary C. bennetti, being compressed anteriorly but mound-like posteriorly [my drawing of a Single-wattled cassowary is shown here]. Its call reportedly “resembled a deep roar” and was unlike that of other cassowaries. The lower parts of the neck were “cherry crimson”, and the facial flaps (Rothschild referred to these as cheek pouches, though I’m not sure that this term is really appropriate) were flushed lavender-blue when inflated. The single round, flattened wattle was cherry red on its upper part but blue below (Rothschild 1900).
Most remarkably, however, it had notably stout, short legs and, though it was large bird (Rothschild described it as “a giant”), it was lower to the ground than any other of the large cassowaries, being equal in height to the small Bennett’s cassowary. Rothschild even likened Sclater’s cassowary to Pachyornis, the stout-legged moa, a moa famous for its large size but thickset, short-legged frame. This explains the image I used at the very top: Sclater’s cassowary is shown on the left (from Rothschild (1900)), and on the right is a drawing of a Pachyornis, childishly given a cassowary casque. Fascinating as this animal sounds, it is now regarded as an individual of C. unappendiculatus, though some authors at least have regarded it as a representative of a distinct subspecies (Howard & Moore 1991). Despite Rothschild’s confidence about the distinctive nature of Sclater’s cassowary, its bizarre feathers and unusual proportions were purportedly due to individual variation and perhaps its lifestyle in captivity. Nevertheless it sounds like a remarkable bird.
In his writings on cassowaries, Rothschild’s greatest mistake was perhaps to recognise distinct species whenever he encountered a cassowary which had a particularly bold colour pattern on its head and neck. This propensity to recognize multiple species based on small differences was even commented on by his sister-in-law and his employees during his lifetime (Rothschild 1983), and should not be regarded as a criticism unique to this enlightened age.
And, for historical reasons only (it’s nothing to do with the cassowaries discussed here, but was used in the original 2006 version of this article), here’s a life-sized model of a Phorusrhacos, decked out as per usual with Burian’s colour scheme.
For previous articles on cassowaries and other ratites, see…
- Cassowaries kick ass
- Struthio’s pectoral weirdness
- Yes, it was a kiwi
- 200 years of kiwi research
- Dissecting an emu
- Dissecting Ozbert the ostrich
Refs – –
Fuller, E. 1995. The Lost Birds of Paradise. Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury, UK.
Howard, R. & Moore, A. 1991. Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World (Second Edition). Christopher Helm, London.
Rothschild, M. 1983. Dear Lord Rothschild: Birds, Butterflies and History. Balaban Publishers, Glenside, Pennsylvania.
Rothschild, W. 1900. A monograph of the genus Casuarius. Transactions of the Zoological Society, London 15, 109-148.
Whitehead, P. J. P. and Keates, C. 1981. The British Museum (Natural History). P. Wilson, London.