Walter Rothschild and the rise and fall of Sclater's cassowary

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...

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.


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a) Cassowaries are absolutely awesome and this is also one of my favourite posts;

b) I'm pretty sure the original of that cassowary head print is in the new LNHM exhibition on art and the natural sciences. It (or whatever the London print is if it is not that one) is absolutely stunning in the flesh; and

c) Hopefully inside 2 months there'll be some wild cassowary photos appearing on my blog (he says touching wood having tempted fate massively there).

Did rainforest field work in Queensland for a decade, and a decent population of cassowaries lived in the forest near the Gray Peaks area south of Cairns. The footprints in the mud are totally dinosaurian, but that's nothing to coming upon a 4-6' bird suddenly. A very, very impressive bird.

"for $225,000 - about a dollar a specimen"

Wow, that is a large collection.

I know modern scientific collecting generally isn't a threat to species (and indeed is necessary to find out what they are, get them named etc) but stuff like that, from that era, I wonder about.

Why is Sclater's cassowary now regarded as C. unappendiculatus -- are other cassowaries (or other ratites) with that sort of deformity/different body shape known? Or is it simply considered to be less unlikely than the possibility that Rothschild found the only known individual of an extinct(??) species?

By William Miller (not verified) on 28 Feb 2011 #permalink

One brief comment on # 3: I've just been writing about a case from 1890 where a collector discovered a colony of a new species of bat (later named the New Guinea big-eared bat or Thomas's big-eared bat Pharotis imogene). The colony consisted of 45 animals. The collector euthanised and collected all 45 bats. With the exception of one unconfirmed report from 1985, no-one has seen any specimens since. I'm all for the collection of zoological specimens - like it or not, it's absolutely necessarily. But I cannot understand the mindset behind this sort of 'collecting'.

And before anyone pipes up about Tibbles the cat and the Stephens Island wren Traversia lyalli, its restriction to Stephens Island was the result of extensive prior persecution... Tibbles was not solely to blame.

There was also rather more than just one cat on Stephens Island.

By Dave Godfrey (not verified) on 28 Feb 2011 #permalink

Wm Miller - probably excessive collection (including eggs) for victorian enthusiasts may have helped the decline of some populations which were already under threat e.g. from habitat loss or (in many island cases) invasive spp. but there's little evidence to suggest that actual scientific collectors did any serious harm (even extravagant ones like Rothschild and Buller). Overhunting/collecting for curiosity cabinets and feathers may have contributed to the decline of species such as the NZ Huia and the Hawai'ian O'o and Mamo, which appear to have been quite severely impacted by collectors.
Re the Stephen Island wren, is there any evidence that it was ever more widespread? There were 2 Xenicus spp on the mainland of NZ but neither is quite flightless (one - the bush wren X longipes, had limted powers of flight and also appears to be extinct since the mid 60's); I read somewhere that skeletons of a flightless wren have been found on the mainland but is this the same species? I don't have a reference. The living birds were reportedly seen only twice by the lighthouse keeper and were certainly exterminated within a very few years of their discovery.

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 28 Feb 2011 #permalink

Kattato: Traversia lyalli was definitely a critically endangered relict when discovered on Stephens Island in 1894. Its highly distinctive bones have been found at widespread locations on both main islands of New Zealand. Indeed, the name 'Stephens Island wren' is disliked for this reason and some researchers now call it Lyall's wren. See Worthy & Holdaway's excellent The Lost World of the Moa for more.

Casuarius philipi from your description appears much too strange to be simply freak one-wattled cassowary. I wonder if this is overlooked distinct species?

Luckily, specimen exists in easy to reach British museum and DNA analysis can be done. Maybe some ornithologist takes interest, instead of yet another study of European birds.

Probably many undescribed bird species exist in museums wrongly labelled as freaks. And not just near-identical large-billed reed warblers, even big and colorful distinctive species like orange-headed parrot were mislabelled for decades.

I pondered some time ago that New Guinea is so little researched and crisscrossed by ecological barriers, that cassowary species unknown to science may well exist. Compare two recently discovered tree kangaroos in New Guinea.

Cassowaries remind me of the Extinct Terror Birds of N.A & S.A.

By Bob Michaels (not verified) on 28 Feb 2011 #permalink

Considering the general high standard of your publications, this article has little to recommend it and perhaps should be subtitled âMuch ado about nothingâ.
It is easy to be wise after the event and your superior attitude to Walter Rothschildâs taxonomy, which was perfectly in keeping with the scientific view of the age, is quite unjustified. Rothschildâs contribution to science was huge and the cassowary collection at Tring of some 213 skins and mounted specimens, not to mention the eggs, skeletal and preserved specimens, is by far and away the largest in the world.
As you are also aware, even today, the nomenclature attribution to fellow scientists is a common habit and I presume you would also enjoy having recognition of your work enshrined in some species.
Regarding Casuarius philipi you do not contribute anything new and are more likely to confuse the issue for those who have never studied the genus. All taxonomic authorities accept that Casuarius philipi is a Casuarius unappendiculatus form and our knowledge is currently still insufficient to attribute subspecific status to most of the (48) described cassowary forms. The physical attributes you highlight are common to all C. unappendiculatus adults and certainly not specific to C. philipi. The cheek pouches are a prominent feature in C. u. and are inflated during mating display, when their colour has been observed to change. The shape of the helmet is possibly partly determined by altitude variation within the habitat range. Current research suggests the helmet (casque) is primarily used in communication and acts as a sound box.
Any comparison to Pachyornis or Phorusrhacos is unlikely to be relevant to any serious study of cassowaries, although I do not rule out parallel evolution regarding certain physical traits.
Best regards,
Richard Perron

Thanks (I think), Richard, for this rather harsh critique. Maybe you missed my conclusion that philipi "is now regarded as an individual of C. unappendiculatus ... its bizarre feathers and unusual proportions ... purportedly due to individual variation and perhaps its lifestyle in captivity". As for whether I have an "unjustified" or "superior" attitude to Rothschild's taxonomy; well, you seem to have little trouble in criticising his taxonomic decisions yourself, so this seems an odd thing to say.

Having said all that, I appreciate your own continuing work on cassowaries and their variation, so thanks for commenting. Best of luck with your work in using DNA to look at cassowary systematics and phylogeography.

One similarity that can be noted between terror birds and Rothchild's cassowarries is that they both attacked horses.

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 28 Feb 2011 #permalink

I must say this is a terrible month for ill-tempered posts in the vert zoology and palaeo blogs. Can't remember a time when I've seen so many cross people barely being civil to each other online (Brontomerus, anyone...). This ain't the creation/evolution blogs, folks. Bioephemera did a great piece on this a while back:
Darren - I though it was a great post. I looked up the papers on Stephen Island's wren - actually Wikipedia does a pretty good page on it too. Looks like I was led astray by the romance of Tibbles the destroyer of worlds (wren-worlds that is). But shouldn't Traversia be Xenicus? Seems that there isn't much justification for a genus-level division and Xenicus has precedence.

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 28 Feb 2011 #permalink

Thanks, Kattato... I think you're right about cross words (and I've been following the Brontomerus stuff too). I'm sure I'm as guilty of this as much as anyone, but posting online empowers people: they're inclined to use harsh put-downs and be aggressive, when in real life (viz, face to face) they just wouldn't act this way. However, it's also easy to misinterpret the written word - Richard's comment above, for example, looks pretty aggressive, but this may well not be intentional.

As for acanthisittid taxonomy, I follow Worthy, Holdaway and others in restricting Xenicus to the bush wren + rock wren clade. Traversia lacks the features shared by these two and is highly distinctive (wide, flat bill, flattened cranium etc.), so it makes most sense to treat it as generically distinct.

Poor old Buller. He must be turning in his grave. Still, he got his revenge with the Laughing Owl.

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 01 Mar 2011 #permalink

Dear Darren,
Perhaps I got out of bed on the wrong side.
I did read your caveats and appreciate them. While I am an admirer of Walter Rothschild and his work, it is quite reasonable to question some of his taxonomy after 110 years. He also revised some of his earlier work and did not have the benefit of the technical tools available to us today.
It so happens I think very highly of your work and hope at some time in the future we may meet, something denied me with Rothschild who died just before I was born.
Best regards,

By Richard Perron (not verified) on 01 Mar 2011 #permalink

The colony consisted of 45 animals. The collector euthanised and collected all 45 bats.

Didn't something very much like this happen to the great auk?

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 01 Mar 2011 #permalink

The Great Auk was knocked on the head by hungry sailors, not by scientific collectors. There are lots and lots of examples of species being hunted to extinction by humans. In a very few cases, it's possible that zealous collectors killed one or more of the very last few individuals, but these would already have been the "walking dead" with a near-zero chance of recovery - either because their habitat had gone or other threats had compounded their misery - rats, cats, weasels, mongooses and pigs have gobbled up many a forlorn island bird.

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 01 Mar 2011 #permalink

The colony consisted of 45 animals. The collector euthanised and collected all 45 bats.

Well how else are you going to determine the true population means and variances?

On a more serious note, I recently attended a lecture about the interest of the U.S. founders, and particularly Thomas Jefferson, in natural history. Even James Madison was measuring the size of the genitals of the weasels on his estate, and sending the data to Jefferson (The underlying goal here was to dispute Buffon's new world degeneracy hypothesis). Anyway, I have trouble imagining many modern politicians being very interested in anything biology related, but a general interest in science among the "ruling class" seems to have been much more common in the past. Wish it was more like that today...

As an aside, I would purely love to get my hands on some Xenicus DNA. Poor little Acanthisitta is currently at the end of quite a long branch, and who knows how much that branch might be split up with the addition of a relative?

By John Harshman (not verified) on 01 Mar 2011 #permalink

As a zoologist who works (mostly) with insects and some reptiles may I just say how much I appreciate Darren's polymathic posts on TetZoo and observe that many times I have been sent eagerly scuttling off to the primary literature to read more about taxa or questions that have been subjects of posts here. Richard Perron's comments, wrong side of the bed or not, are not really excusable. Please keep up the good, and endlessly fascinating, work Darren, and let's hope posters will keep civil.

Adam F wrote:

Anyway, I have trouble imagining many modern politicians being very interested in anything biology related

The one that comes to mind is Hirohito the amateur marine biologist.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 01 Mar 2011 #permalink

Wasn't there a mayor of London interested in amphibians? And I suppose Al Gore has been active in at least the advocacy side of a science related field as well. But I think the point probably still stands.

Adam F: Akihito is also a marine biologist: he published a few papers on Gobiids and on the history of Japanese science. Before he became an emperor, he used to paint really good fish illustrations for field guides.

Sclater's Cassowary might just have had a fat tummy...I've seen cats fat enough to be mistaken for something else.=p

Adam (and others):

I have trouble imagining many modern politicians being very interested in anything biology related, but a general interest in science among the "ruling class" seems to have been much more common in the past. Wish it was more like that today...

See this post and especially its comments.

It was Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London and Henry's cat sound-alike, who was a newt-fancier (if I remember correctly): aren't there specimens in the NHM that he donated? (someone will correct me on this, I'm sure ;) But our Ken wasn't in the 'ruling class' cos he used to be a communist ... London misses him.

By Gareth Dyke (not verified) on 01 Mar 2011 #permalink

One of Bertie Wooster's chums was interested in newts.

I heart cassowaries! Great post Darren.

The Rothschild Dynasty makes money off of both sides of every war. World War I never should have happened but the Rothschild banking cartels wanted money and power plus an excuse to build a league of nations!