Many people wonder how vultures can eat decaying carcasses. After all, dead animals have given way to enzymes and organisms which break down flesh and bone. Obviously eating this way is not something that every animal can do, so scientists set out to understand it.
“To investigate vultures’ ability to survive eating this putrid cocktail, we generated DNA profiles from the community of bacteria living on the face and gut of 50 vultures from the U.S.A. The vulture gastrointestinal passage is a hostile environment,” reports Lars Hestbjerg Hansen, a microbiologist with Aaruhus University of Denmark. “Our findings enable us to reconstruct both the similarities, and differences, between the bacteria found in turkey vultures and black vultures, distributed widely in the Western Hemisphere.”
The results actually served to explain more about the birds of prey than researchers probably originally anticipated.
“These vultures will consume virtually any dead vertebrate—mammal, bird, snake, fish. They prefer recently deceased organisms rather than extremely putrid carcasses. For example, day-old road-killed deer are perfect,” adds ornithologist Gary Graves from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, in the nation’s capital.
“Our results show there has been strong adaptation in vultures when it comes to dealing with the toxic bacteria they digest,” says study lead author, University of Copenhagen doctoral student Micheal Roggen. “On one hand, vultures have developed an extremely tough digestive system, which simply acts to destroy the majority of the dangerous bacteria they ingest. On the other hand, vultures also appear to have developed a tolerance towards some of the deadly bacteria—species that would kill other animals actively seem to flourish in the vulture lower intestine.”
More importantly than the fact that vultures eat dead animals, but they also help to dispose of the infectious microbes which inhabit the carcasses, which is good for all other organisms.