Beachgoers in Bingil Bay on Australia's east coast were in for a surprise on Halloween when a sinister, dark shape splashed through the water. Onlookers initially thought it was a shark fin or perhaps a turtle. But when the creature emerged, it became clear that it was something else entirely: a young cassowary, widely known as the most dangerous bird in the world.
The sighting was reported to the Queensland Department of Environment and Science on October 31 and has since gone somewhat viral, Science Alert reports.
Cassowaries are famous for their prehistoric appearance, their height and their strong clawed legs and feet, with the potential to cause serious damage.
Flightless birds are sensibly quite wary of humans and are unlikely to attack unless provoked.
Sighting a southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii) in the water is a surprise, as many people do not realize that cassowaries can swim.
"Cassowaries can swim and will take to the water to cross from one side of a river to the other, or if they feel threatened by domestic dogs or another cassowary through a territorial dispute," the wildlife officer explained in a press release. Stephen Clough of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS), says Science Alert.
"We're not sure how long this animal was in the water or why it went swimming, but the images are amazing." According to reports from Bingil Bay camp host Nikita McDowell, the bird was swimming about 200 meters from shore.
"I ran down and waited for the cassowary to emerge from the ocean, and it must have been exhausted as it stood in the shade under a tree with its paws shaking for about half an hour," McDowell said.
"Maybe it entered the ocean around south of Mission Beach and was caught by the current or in a current and swept into Bingil Bay," he added.
Bingil Bay is located north of Mission Beach in tropical north Queensland, and the region is often known as the "Cassowary Coast", says Science Alert.
The traditional owners of the land call the area Djiru country and refer to the cassowary as the goondoi.
The bird is an important species to Australia's first nations people and plays a key role in the propagation of rainforest trees, some of which will not germinate until they have passed through the large herbivore's digestive system.
Sadly, there are now only about 4,000 cassowaries left in Queensland, and the population is listed as endangered under the Nature Conservation Act 1992, Science Alert reports.
The birds are threatened by vehicle crashes and dog attacks, and visitors to the area, which is just north of Mission Beach in tropical north Queensland, are advised never to approach the birds and give them too much space.
"This rare sighting and fortunate escape of the cassowary is a reminder that we must all do what we can to protect and conserve the species," Clough said.
So are cassowaries really that dangerous? Along with ostriches, they are one of only two bird species known to have caused human death through physical attacks, Science Alert says.
A review of cassowary attacks published in 2006 in the Journal of Zoology analyzed 221 observed cassowary attacks, of which 150 were against humans.
A staggering 75% of those attacks were the result of humans feeding the birds (which they are advised not to do).
A little more than 70 percent of the time, the birds charged and only used their claws in 15 percent of the attacks.
So if you are lucky enough to come face to face with one of these beauties, remember not to approach her or try to feed her. Especially if there are eggs or chicks nearby!
Walk away slowly and try to put a backpack or other object between you and the bird, the Department of Environment and Science advises.