Friday, February 17, 2006

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

So, besides whales, dinosaurs and giant killer eagles, one of my favourite subjects is that of giant flightless birds. The accompanying picture depicts a life-sized model of a phorusrhacoid - followers of previous things I've written will realise the significance of the colour scheme (Dan Varner are you listening?). Having spent the day so far on obscure Cretaceous vertebrates from the Iberian Peninsula, and on dull editorial work, I thought I'd waste some time and post the following entry on - sorry - not phorusrhacoids, but cassowaries. It's an extract from a much longer article I published on them a few years ago. Of all birds surely they are the coolest. Gary Cunningham, world authority on the dobhar-chu, phoned last night while I was out. Sorry I missed your call Gary. In view of the message he left I was going to produce a post about extinct sea otters, but I've decided to keep the information I have to another time. So on to cassowaries. Well, on to one cassowary in particular. Hmm, if only I had a picture of it....

Lord Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) 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 BMNH 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 single collections of cassowaries in the world, Rothschild’s collection included no fewer than 62 mounted cassowaries. These specimens evidently prove rather problematic for the curators at Tring and Whitehead & Keates (1981) write ‘... 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 and consequently curtailed in 1908 by Charles Rothschild, Walter’s brother. The more than 60 mounted specimens eventually cost over £2000.

Studying these specimens with the aim of producing a monograph describing the different forms, Rothschild regarded it as essential that his descriptions were based on live specimens, not just on skins, so he collected all the 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” (Rothschild 1983, p. 103). Given that cassowaries are famous for being pugnacious, one wonders if the cassowaries were ever the cause of any trouble. Indeed, cassowaries were partially responsible for the harsh attitude Rothschild’s father (Nathaniel Rothschild) had of his son’s collection for, in 1888, one of the cassowaries which 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 is a lavishly illustrated work in which several new forms 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.

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 Sclater (who is also commemorated in the name of a C. casuarius subspecies), 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.

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 C. unappendiculatus and C. bennetti, being compressed rostrally but mound-like caudally. Its call reportedly ‘resembled a deep roar’ and was unlike that of other cassowaries. 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. Fascinating as this animal sounds, it is now regarded as an individual of C. unappendiculatus. Despite Rothschild’s confidence about the distinctive nature of Sclater’s cassowary, it was apparently still a juvenile or subadult during the time that Rothschild was describing it. 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.

Refs - -

Fuller, E. 1995. The Lost Birds of Paradise. Swan Hill Press (Shrewsbury, UK).

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).


Blogger Mike Taylor said...

The disappointing thing about this blog is that the blackmail subplot rather fizzles out. I'd hoped that he was being blackmailed by a secret cassowary fetishist, and that the blackmailers terms were MORE CASSOWARIES! MORE MORE MORE!

11:04 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home