|vulture cleaning service -- breaking down a carcass in Africa|
Think for a moment about the smell and disease that would prevail without these birds and other scavengers providing their cleaning service for the rest of us.
When an animal dies, bacteria get their chance to start feeding on it, which boosts their fitness and, thus, their populations. Many bacteria also produce toxins that prevent larger animals from joining in the feast, but vultures just dig right in.
How do they do it? Vultures and other scavengers detoxify their food either before or after eating, through "unusually destructive" stomach juices and gut bacteria. They also build up antibodies to the toxins found in decaying meat and appear to pass around small doses of the germs through their group interactions - like we do via vaccines.
This MinuteEarth video explains some of these fantastic, if somewhat gross, adaptations.
For their help in keeping our fields, prairies, and roads clean, we should give a cheer for the vultures.
Yet we are killing them. Lead in the gunshot remaining in animals that are shot and injured or just left by hunters poisons the scavengers, such as the majestic California condor, that eat these carcasses.
|Two lappet-faced vultures (on left) and an African white-backed vulture|
on the lookout in Kenya. Photo: Jerry Friedman, Wikimedia Commons
Vultures circle above dying and dead animals, which can signal rangers far away that an animal has been killed. By killing the tell-tale vultures, as well as the elephant, poachers hide their crime.
Persecution has made several African vulture species endangered, and their good looks haven't won them much appreciation from most people.
Yet their ability to digest poisons without getting the food poisoning that would sicken or even kill one of us is itself worth of respect and research. And by eating a food that others can't, they maintain a stable energy source.
More urgently for us, the importance of their daily activity to human and animal health is undeniable. Each piece of the ecological puzzle is important, and our fitness depends in part on theirs!
|peering strategically to a potential food source below? |
Or just sleeping?