Camera-shy cassowaries tricked by fake fruit

By Amelia Caddy October 30, 2015
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Scientists have photographed the rare southern cassowary in the Daintree, using a clever ploy.

FAKE FRUIT LURES have been used to photograph the shy and endangered southern cassowary, by scientists in far north Queensland.

The research, which identified 45 individual birds, was the first extensive survey of cassowaries in the Daintree Rainforest for more than 20 years.

Wren R. McLean, a post-graduate researcher at Southern Cross University, in Lismore, NSW, developed the fake fruit technique as a way to survey cassowaries for her honours research, which she presented at a conference at the university earlier this month.

Cassowaries in the wild

To lure the birds, Wren painted plastic fishing buoys red and blue to imitate fallen rainforest fruit – the cassowary’s food-of-choice – and strung them around the base of trees in front of 15 motion-activated cameras.

“I needed something to attract the cassowaries to the cameras, as they have such big home ranges,” she says.

Another set of cameras were set up without the lures, proving that the technique increases the number of cassowaries detected, and results in quicker detection times.

This is the first time such a technique has been employed to survey cassowaries.

“A lot of the traditional ways that cassowaries are surveyed is through searching for signs, which are the footprints, scats, sightings, and vocalisations,” says Wren, adding that these conventional methods are difficult to use in dense rainforest.

How to spot a southern cassowary

Wren hopes to conduct repeat surveys of the Daintree region every five years. “I think this would give us a greater idea of how this…population is surviving in an area that has some development, quite a lot of tourism, but also quite a lot of good-quality habitat.”

It’s estimated there are around 4000 southern cassowaries left in northern Queensland, while little is known about their distribution in Cape York and New Guinea.

The species is vital for the dispersal of more than 240 different rainforest plants, many of which would likely suffer if cassowaries were to disappear.

In turn, cassowaries rely upon the rainforest plants for food, and are threatened by the fragmentation of low-land rainforest, which has been shown to support the highest density of cassowaries.

A series of camera trap images such as this, below, provided new data about the population size of the elusive bird (Credit: Wren R. McLean).