Can Vultures Experience Stomachaches?

Hey! What is that…ahead…in the middle of the road? While driving down the highway, you notice several large black objects in the middle of the road. They are not supposed to be there!

As you get closer, you realize that they are moving. They are animals! What is happening here? When your vehicle gets even closer, you recognize that they are large birds. You also see that there is something else lying in the road that has attracted these birds to a dangerous spot in the middle of the highway.

When you are almost upon them, the birds fly up into the air to make way for your vehicle. You drive by the carcass of a dead animal. It is roadkill! And that means those large birds of prey must be vultures! The sight of the dead, decaying animal carcass makes you feel nauseous.

How can vultures eat roadkill? The mere sight of the carcass makes you feel sick, so how can vultures eat it without getting a stomachache?

Vultures are indeed scavengers that regularly feast on the carcasses of dead animals, also known as carrion. While this behavior may seem repulsive to humans, we should actually be grateful to vultures for the important role they play in our environment.

Vultures are like nature’s janitors. Animals get hit by cars. They also die from predator attacks, diseases, and natural causes in the wild. Our world would be much messier if all these animal carcasses were left to decompose.

By consuming carrion, vultures clean up the environment and help prevent the spread of diseases. When a group of vultures eats a freshly-killed animal, they stop dangerous bacteria and other microbes from spreading through the environment.

But how can vultures tolerate eating carrion? If humans were to eat carrion, we would become seriously ill. We might even die if the carrion was infected with deadly pathogens like anthrax, cholera, botulism, or salmonella.

However, vultures don’t get sick. In fact, they thrive on their regular diet of carrion. Their first secret is that they also try to avoid rotting meat. Vultures prefer carrion that has recently been killed. As carrion ages and becomes extremely rotten, vultures will avoid it and search for fresher meat.

Even freshly-killed meat can carry many diseases. Luckily, vultures have a very strong immune system and a stomach that can handle anything. In fact, a vulture’s stomach acid has a pH level close to zero, similar to battery acid!

The highly acidic stomach of a vulture kills most bacteria and parasites before they reach the bird’s intestines. Recent studies on vultures’ gut microbes have found that two types of microbes tend to thrive: Clostridia, which can produce toxins like botulism, and Fusobacteria, which can cause flesh-eating infections. Researchers believe that the presence of these microbes in vultures indicates that they have developed immunity to many pathogens and toxins, which allows them to thrive on carrion.

Give It a Try

Do you want to explore more about this topic? Find a friend or family member to help you try out the following activities:

  • Go online and watch the King Vultures video from National Geographic. Take note of at least three facts you learn from the video. Share your newfound knowledge with a friend or family member.
  • Can you identify a vulture if you encounter one in the wild? Explore the Species Photo Gallery of New World (Americas) Vultures. Have you ever spotted any of these birds where you live? Would you ever consider keeping a vulture as a pet? Explain your reasons for or against it.
  • When was the last time you experienced a stomach ache? Was it after consuming all that candy last Halloween? Or was it due to overindulging in pizza last week? A belly ache can bring you to a halt until you find a remedy. Discuss with an adult friend or family member the most common ways to alleviate a stomach ache. Which medicines do you have at home to treat an upset stomach?

Sources of Wonder

  • http://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/vultures-food-poisoning/
  • http://www.nature.com/news/microbes-help-vultures-eat-rotting-meat-1.16345

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