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Endangered Species
Who Knew, Emu?

In northern Australia the king of the jungle is a flightless, five-foot-tall bird with a blue neck, a brilliant red wattle, and a prehistoric casque atop its head. The southern cassowary tromps through the forest gulping down ripe fruits from the woodland floor and dispersing their seeds miles away in fresh mounds of dung. And with a pair of five-inch daggers for claws on its inner toes, this emu relative can stop just about anything or anyone that gets in the way.

What it can’t stop, however, is climate change, which is accelerating the natural process of desertification that has been under way in Australia for the past 20 million years and is now threatening to shrink the thin band of coastal wet forest where the cassowary lives. “Climate change predictions here are quite dramatic,” says David Westcott, an ecologist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization in Atherton. “Habitat moves up mountains, and the mountains don’t go up high enough.” With more than 80 percent of the cassowary’s historic habitat in the wet tropics already destroyed, scientists put the bird’s remaining population at only 1,200 to 2,500 individuals. To help ensure the species’ survival, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service is working with the Australian Rainforest Foundation to secure a 150-mile habitat corridor along the coast.

Although many of Australia’s endemic species are facing similar threats, it’s been a particularly rough couple of years for the endangered cassowary. In 2006 the town of Mission Beach, a prime location in cassowary territory, was ravaged by Cyclone Larry, which all but eliminated the fruit crop the birds depend on. The cassowaries were popping out of forests more frequently, crossing roads and heading into backyards in search of sustenance. Many were attacked by dogs or hit by cars. Then came 2007, a long, hot, dry year for Australia that was even more intense for a large-bodied, forest-dwelling species left with little shade and little water in its coastal hangouts. Ornithologists reported birds ducking under vegetation and panting just to keep cool. The Mission Beach locals, who know the birds so well that they give them names, claim that not a single chick survived that season. Climate scientists say such extreme weather is apt to be all the more commonplace in Australia’s future.

Still the big bird’s resilience may help it adapt—at least for the short term. In the past couple of months Mission Beach residents have spotted a few striped chicks trailing behind their fathers. And Westcott has ramped up his efforts to understand how climate change has affected cassowary populations in the past. His team has been sampling DNA from cassowary dung in order to develop better estimates of the population size and to understand the history of the bird’s movements in and out of patches of remnant forest, all of which will give the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Department better data to figure out where to focus their conservation efforts.

“By looking at the past,” Westcott says, “we’ve got some idea as to what we have to deal with in the future.”—Brendan Borrell
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