1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Emeu

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EMEU, evidently from the Port. Ema,[1] a name which has in turn been applied to each of the earlier-known forms of Ratite birds, but has finally settled upon that which inhabits Australia, though, up to the close of the 18th century, it was given by most authors to the bird now commonly called cassowary—this last word being a corrupted form of the Malayan Suwari (see Crawfurd, Gramm. and Dict. Malay Language, ii. pp. 178 and 25), apparently first printed as Casoaris by Bontius in 1658 (Hist. nat. et med. Ind. Orient. p. 71).

Fig. 1.—Ceram Cassowary.[2]

The cassowaries (Casuariidae) and emeus (Dromaeidae)—as the latter name is now used—have much structural resemblance, and form the order Megistanes,[3] which is peculiar to the Australian Region. Huxley showed (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1867, pp. 422, 423,) that they agree in differing from the other Ratitae in many important characters; one of the most obvious of them is that each contour-feather appears to be double, its hyporachis, or aftershaft, being as long as the main shaft—a feature noticed in the case of either form so soon as examples were brought to Europe. The external distinctions of the two families are, however, equally plain. The cassowaries, when adult, bear a horny helmet on their head; they have some part of the neck bare, generally more or less ornamented with caruncles, and the claw of the inner toe is remarkably elongated. The emeus have no helmet, their head is feathered, their neck has no caruncles, and their inner toes bear a claw of no singular character.

Fig. 2.—Emeu.

The type of the Casuariidae is the species named by Linnaeus Struthio casuarius and by John Latham Casuarius emeu. Vieillot subsequently called it C. galeatus, and his epithet has been very commonly adopted by writers, to the exclusion of the older specific appellation. It seems to be peculiar to the island of Ceram, and was made known to naturalists, as we learn from Clusius, in 1597, by the first Dutch expedition to the East Indies, when an example was brought from Banda, whither it had doubtless been conveyed from its native island. It was said to have been called by the inhabitants “Emeu,” or “Ema,” but this name they must have had from the earlier Portuguese navigators.[4] Since that time examples have been continually imported into Europe, so that it has become one of the best-known members of the subclass Ratitae. For a long time its glossy, but coarse and hair-like, black plumage, its lofty helmet, the gaudily-coloured caruncles of its neck, and the four or five barbless quills which represent its wing-feathers, made it appear unique among birds. But in 1857 Dr George Bennett certified the existence of a second and perfectly distinct species of cassowary, an inhabitant of New Britain, where it was known to the natives as the Mooruk, and in his honour it was named by John Gould C. bennetti. Several examples were soon after received in England, and these confirmed the view of it already taken. A considerable number of other species of the genus have since been described from various localities in the same subregion. Conspicuous among them from its large size and lofty helmet is the C. australis, from the northern parts of Australia. Its existence indeed had been ascertained, by T. S. Wall, in 1854, but the specimen obtained by that unfortunate explorer was lost, and it was not until 1867 that an example was submitted to competent naturalists.

Not much seems to be known of the habits of any of the cassowaries in a state of nature. Though the old species occurs rather plentifully over the whole of the interior of Ceram, A. R. Wallace was unable to obtain or even to see an example. They all appear to bear captivity well, and the hens in confinement frequently lay their dark-green and rough-shelled eggs, which, according to the custom of the Ratitae, are incubated by the cocks. The nestling plumage is mottled (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1863, pl. xlii.), and when about half-grown they are clothed in dishevelled feathers of a deep tawny colour.

Of the emeus (as the word is now restricted) the best known is the Casuarius novae-hollandiae of John Latham, made by Vieillot the type of his genus Dromaeus,[5] whence the name of the family (Dromaeidae) is taken. This bird immediately after the colonization of New South Wales (in 1788) was found to inhabit the south-eastern portion of Australia, where, according to John Hunter (Hist. Journ., &c., pp. 409, 413), the natives call it Maracry, Marryang or Maroang; but it has now been so hunted down that not an example remains at large in the districts that have been fully settled. It is said to have existed also on the islands of Bass Straits and in Tasmania, but it has been exterminated in both, without, so far as is known, any ornithologist having had the opportunity of determining whether the race inhabiting those localities was specifically identical with that of the mainland or distinct. Next to the ostrich the largest of existing birds, the common emeu is an inhabitant of the more open country, feeding on fruits, roots and herbage, and generally keeping in small companies. The nest is a shallow pit scraped in the ground, and from nine to thirteen eggs, in colour varying from a bluish-green to a dark bottle-green, are laid therein. These are hatched by the cock-bird, the period of incubation lasting from 70 to 80 days. The young at birth are striped longitudinally with dark markings on a light ground. A remarkable structure in Dromaeus is a singular opening in the front of the windpipe, communicating with a tracheal pouch. This has attracted the attention of several anatomists, and has been well described by Dr Murie (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1867, pp. 405-415). Various conjectures have been made as to its function, the most probable of which seems to be that it is an organ of sound in the breeding-season, at which time the hen-bird has long been known to utter a remarkably loud booming note. Due convenience being afforded to it, the emeu thrives well, and readily propagates its kind in Europe. Like other Ratite birds it will take to the water, and examples have been seen voluntarily swimming a wide river.  (A. N.) 

  1. By Moraes (1796) and Sousa (1830) the word is said to be from the Arabic Naʽāma or Naʽēma, an ostrich (Struthio camelus); but no additional evidence in support of the assertion is given by Dozy in 1869 (Glossaire des mots espagnols et portugais dérivés de l’arabe, 2nd ed., p. 260). According to Gesner in 1555 (lib. iii. p. 709), it was the Portuguese name of the crane (Grus communis), and had been transferred with the qualifying addition of “di Gei ” (i.e. ground-crane) to the ostrich. This statement is confirmed by Aldrovandus (lib. ix. cap. 2). Subsequently, but in what order can scarcely now be determined, the name was naturally enough used for the ostrich-like birds inhabiting the lands discovered by the Portuguese, both in the Old and in the New World. The last of these are now known as rheas, and the preceding as cassowaries.
  2. The figures are taken, by permission, from Messrs Mosenthal and Harting’s Ostriches and Ostrich Farming (Trübner & Co., 1877).
  3. Ann. and Mag. Nat. Hist. ser. 4, xx. p. 500.
  4. It is known that the Portuguese preceded the Dutch in their voyages to the East, and it is almost certain that the latter were assisted by pilots of the former nation, whose names for places and various natural objects would be imparted to their employers (see Dodo).
  5. The obvious misprint of Dromeicus in this author’s work (Analyse, &c., p. 54) was foolishly followed by many naturalists, forgetful that he corrected it a few pages farther on (p. 70) to Dromaius—the properly latinized form of which is Dromaeus.