The colourful Cassowary
Created ‘as is’ or retro ratite?
In 1959, missionary nurse Eleanor Smith1 ‘became a cassowary’, when the Suki tribe of Papua New Guinea’s Western Province allocated her to their cassowary clan. This was because of her auburn hair that matched this flightless bird’s red wattles (coloured folds of skin hanging from its neck).
The Suki people have long hunted cassowaries for their flesh, feathers, bones, and claws. The arrival of steel implements with European explorers and settlers has reduced the traditional use of the dagger-like cassowary claws as arrow heads and spear-tips, and of the long, strong leg bones to make knives. The bristly feathers have been used as decorative items of dress.
Cassowaries occur only in the wet tropical rainforest areas of Eastern Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Northern Queensland (Australia). There are three distinct species: the Southern (or Double-Wattled), the Single Wattled, and the Dwarf Cassowary. The Southern Cassowary, Casuarius casuarius, is found throughout the region, and is the only one in Australia.2
Prior to European settlement, the cassowary was a rich source of protein in the diet of Melanesian and Australian Aboriginal people groups. However, the excellent camouflage of these magnificent birds, and their ability to move swiftly through heavy jungle undergrowth, has enabled them to elude many of the attempts by man (their main predator) to add them to the menu.
The world’s second largest living bird after the ostrich, the Southern Cassowary is also Australia’s largest land animal, and the continent’s heaviest bird (and tallest after the emu). Cassowaries can be fierce in defending their territory and/or their young, and their strong legs with sharp claws can deliver a ferocious kick. However, despite their reputation for being able to kill people, such incidents are extremely rare.
There are few available statistics for Indonesia and Papua New Guinea but in Australia there are believed to be less than 900 individuals left in the wild. As a result, the Australian sub-species Casuarius casuarius johnsonii is on the Endangered Species List.3
Cassowaries have glossy black plumage with bare blue-skinned neck, pendulous bright red wattles and a head capped with a brown casque (or helmet). Their coarse hair-like feathers lack barbules that hold the feathers together in all flying birds. The wing stubs carry a few long modified quills which curve around the body.4 These and the casque are thought to help these amazing birds to run at great speed through the jungle undergrowth.
Evolutionary writers have claimed that cassowaries flourished in ‘Gondwana’3 some 40 to 70 million years ago.4 As the modern species are virtually unchanged from the fossils that have been found, they are labelled ‘living fossils’. With the cassowaries, as with so many other similarly labelled species, such as the Wollemi Pine,5 the lack of evolutionary change in the fossil record is a problem for those who seek naturalistic explanations of origins. This is in addition to the lack of an adequate mechanism for the evolution of birds in the first place.6
Cassowaries have traditionally been classified in the ratite family of flightless birds, along with the Australian Emu, the African Ostrich, the South American Rhea and New Zealand’s Kiwi. The now extinct Moa of New Zealand and the Elephant Bird of Madagascar were also ratites. Recently the evolutionary supposition that all the ratites share a common flightless ancestor7 has been challenged by genetic research.8 (See also “Of Moas and Men”.) This research fits nicely into the idea commonly held by creationists, namely that each type individually lost its power of flight, i.e. it descended from an ancestral kind that did have the ability to fly, just like the flightless cormorants of the Galápagos archipelago.9 Such ‘downward change’ through degenerative mutations would also have led to the related changes in feather structure, i.e. the loss of the barbules, for instance.10
The one document which is demonstrably the ‘Maker’s Manual’ for the universe (the Bible) clearly indicates that the first of the cassowary’s kind were created on Earth about 6,000 years ago. A pair of their descendants were taken for a ride on Noah’s Ark, and migrated from the mountains of Ararat in the past 4000 years.
Even if the ability to fly had been lost before Noah’s Flood, the facts that present-day cassowaries are strong swimmers, and that juvenile cassowaries are still traded from island to island, show that migration over a few generations from Ararat to Arufe (in southern New Guinea) would have been quite feasible. The lowered sea levels of the Ice Age following (and triggered by) the Flood would have reduced or even eliminated many of the stretches of water needing to be crossed.
If the cassowary ancestors on the Ark could still fly, then over generations they may have arrived in Indonesia, New Guinea and North Queensland well ahead of land-bound potential competitors. With their dietary preferences, which involve foraging through the undergrowth of the dense rainforest floor, flying was increasingly less necessary. In fact, the wet tropical thicket of tangled vines would have presented some risk to a large bird attempting takeoff. So, the downward changes which led to flightlessness would have been more of an asset than a liability, and thus favoured by natural selection.
The bird’s casque (helmet) consists of a tough keratinous layer over a spongy centre. Evolutionists presume that somehow the casque developed as a device to help the bird make its way through dense undergrowth. How? The cassowary is a fruit-eater, not a predator. Its only predator is man, who seeks them out by stealth rather than by hot pursuit. It’s hard to see any advantage given by a precursor growth on the head. In captivity, an occasional cassowary has been observed using the casque in a shovel-like manner to sift through leaf mulch for fallen fruit, but its basic diet is fresh fruit direct from the trees and shrubs.
Cassowaries are all frugivores (fruit eaters) and are the main means of dispersing the seeds of more than 70 plant species in their wet tropical forest habitat.3 Their unique digestive system allows them to consume highly poisonous fruit with impunity. This is at least partially made possible by the food passing very quickly through the alimentary canal. Of course this also means much undigested material is passed out in the dung. This in turn requires the bird to consume large amounts to obtain sufficient nutrition. An intelligent designer would be expected to use this sort of mutualism to ensure ample food for the animals and an efficient propagation system for the plants.
These strikingly beautiful birds are but one of the incredible array of amazingly complex creatures on this planet, testimony to their Maker, the Creator God of the Bible.
References and notes
- In 1963 she became my wife. Return to text.
- www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/cassowary, accessed 17 August 2010. Return to text.
- www.wettropics.gov.au, accessed 17 August 2010. Return to text.
- www.answers.com/topic/casuariidae, accessed 17 August 2010. Return to text.
- See Oard, M., Are fossils ever found in the wrong place?, Creation 32(3)14–15, 2010. Return to text.
- See Refuting Evolution Ch. 4 (accessible creation.com), also creation.com/muddy. Return to text.
- See Journal of Molecular Evolution 8:283–294 (1976). Return to text.
- New research challenges long-held assumptions of flightless bird evolution, www.physorg.com, 3 September 2008. Return to text.
- See Cosner, L. And Sarfati, J., The birds of the Galápagos, Creation 31(3):28–31, 2009; Sarfati, J., The Greatest Hoax on Earth? Refuting Dawkins on evolution pp. 254–255, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs GA, 2010. Return to text.
- See Bates A., Parrot of the Night New Zealand’s Kakapo, Creation 30(4):28–30, 2008, creation.com/kakapo. Return to text.
Thanks for this very interesting article. I have a number of follow up questions which I hope you can answer for me.
1. Cassowaries are tropical rainforest birds now. Were they at the time of the flood? Was Ararat a tropical rainforest? If not why did they just fly south east and not any other compass point?
2. In para four you say melanesian and aboriginal australians ate lots of them but you also say that they have eluded man's attempts to put them on the menu. Which is correct?
3. Why is the lack of evolutionary change a problem for evolutionists. Things don't have to change.
4. Has anyone seen (and recorded) the flight of the cassowary? We don't want to become like evolutionists and make spurious statements about things we've never seen.
Re 1&4: It's impossible for any of us to 'see' what happened before we were born. So in that sense when making statements about the past, we, like the evolutionists, are commenting on things we've never seen. However, bearing in mind the Bible's injunction to "let every matter be established on the testimony of two or more witnesses", we have a colossal headstart on the evolutionists, because we have a true framework of history from which to surmise how flightlessness, etc., came about. Cassowaries might not always have been confined to tropical rainforest. It's even possible that there are still flight-capable members of their kind today (see the principles espoused in http://creation.com/moas-ark-vs-noahs-ark). If our model is correct, viz. that the cassowary is descended from flight-capable ancestors, then it's likely that at some point between the end of the Flood and today, someone saw their ancestors in flight. But no 'recording' of their eyewitness account is available to us.
Re 2: The key word is "many"--the cassowary has been able to elude "many" of its would-be hunters, not all.
Re 3: For evolution to be true, there would have had to have been substantial change to turn single cells into cassowaries. The evidence of such uphill changes is lacking. It certainly isn't provided by the cassowary's loss-of-flight capability, as that is a downhill change. So the lack of evolutionary change IS a problem for evolutionists.
I hope this helps to alleviate at least some of your puzzlement.