Of cyclones and cassowaries

Cyclone Yasi just hit Mission Beach and other places in Far North Queensland. As well as the inevitable human suffering in emotional and financial terms, there is enormous suffering on the part of animals, the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. 250 km/hour winds rip down trees and the big waves trash the coral.

The southern cassowary (one of the three cassowary species living in New Guinea and northern Australia, and the only one in Australia) is on the way to extinction and one of its last strongholds was Mission Beach, which category 5 (the most severe) Yasi struck full-on a couple of days ago. It’s too early to find out what’s happened to those cassowaries. I visited Mission Beach twenty years ago and went looking for them, but even then they were rare.

Southern Cassowary

Southern cassowary, photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons

Cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius) live predominantly in rainforest, and feed mainly on the fallen fruits of rainforest trees. The seed passes through the digestive system, priming it to germinate when it hits the ground again. There’s a mutual dependency between the bird and some 150 plant species, which need the bird to distribute their seeds.

The female lays the eggs and the male incubates and rears them. Adults can reach 1.8 metres tall and weigh 60 kg, living 30-40 years. They are flightless, but can defend themselves with the large pointed toes on their strong legs. Myth has it that they disembowel attacking dogs in a similar way to kangaroos.

Their main threats are humans (cars and illegal hunting), dogs, clearing of rainforest and competition for food from feral pigs. No one knows exactly how many are left as it’s difficult to track them in the rainforest, but several studies are underway to find out. In June 2010, there were reported to be only 40 adults (only 17 breeding females), 28 sub-adults (non-breeders) and 31 chicks in the Mission Beach area. They face starvation whenever a cyclone rips up the rainforest. And because of the increasing frequency of cyclones, the rainforest does not get time to recover sufficiently before the next one.

Cassowary road sign

Speeding or not, cars are lethal to cassowaries who dash out from the forest with no warning. Photo by Rob Chandler, Wikimedia Commons

Some conservation organisations (Rainforest Rescue and the Australian Rainforest Foundation) ask for donations so they can buy blocks of rainforest in especially threatened areas to preserve them.

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2 Responses to Of cyclones and cassowaries

  1. Alan says:

    Presumably one of the reasons that the rain forests don’t regenerate so quickly after a cyclone is the fact that human activity has reduced the total area of same. I’d also imagine there’s just not as much room to hide from a cyclone in the reduced areas now available as natural habitat for these animals. Over the last few days I was actually wondering about the animals and how they might cope with this sort of thing.

  2. Joy Window says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that the rainforest necessarily regenerates more slowly after a cyclone. It may or may not, depending on conditions. My understanding from Landcare work (www.bigscrubrainforest.org.au, where the aim is to regenerate the Big Scrub, a subtropical rainforest that was cut down for timber in the 1800s) is that seeds germinate at the same rate if they have suitable conditions of moisture and low light. Where the canopy is lost and light, heat and air are let in, they are inhibited from germinating if the conditions are too hot, light or dry for them. The extra air and light let in when the canopy is lost may allow faster-growing, often weedy, species to get a foothold – these weeds inhibit the germination of rainforest seeds as they use up the resources that the rainforest plants need and may smother them. Under canopy, rainforest seedlings normally have a bit of camouflage by means of the sheer density of rainforest plant species, but when that goes the seedlings may be found by animals that munch on them.

    The fragmentation of the forests by humans certainly does not help. Many Landcare groups are attempting to create wildlife corridors so that non-flying species can move around easily. This maximises biodiversity, which is healthy for both humans and non-humans.

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