The Real Stomachs of Steel: Vulture Microbiomes
We imagine that when envisioning the beauty of nature, vultures may not be the first image that springs to mind for many of you. However, the role vultures (and other scavengers) play in stabilizing ecosystems is nothing short of magnificent (not to mention EXTREMELY punk rock).
The primary contribution of vultures is removing toxins from the environment by consuming carrion. Without the intervention of scavengers, the bacteria and other pathogens from rotting carcasses may spread and infect other organisms (including livestock and humans). By eliminating these substances from the environment, vultures help mitigate the spread of disease and protect local food webs.
How do these impressive avians take on toxins potentially lethal to other species (for example, flesh-degrading Fusobacteria and poisonous Clostridi)? The answer, in short, is a microbiome of steel. Researchers have discovered that vultures have both developed harsh chemical conditions in their gastrointestinal tracts that filters out many harmful microorganisms, as well as a tolerance toward some deadly bacteria. In fact, studies suggest that Clostridia and Fusobacteria may even help vultures’ digestive systems by further breaking down nutrients.
Unfortunately, vultures aren’t immune to all toxins, especially those that are human-induced. For example, in the 1990s, widespread use of diclofenac, a cattle medication, reduced the vulture population in India by over 90%. While now illegal in India, diclofenac is still permitted in other countries, and continues to pose a significant threat to vulture populations.
Currently, the African vulture population is at significant risk from intentional poisoning, underground trade, and accidents involving human infrastructure, such as wind turbines and power lines. Declining vulture populations mean rising threats to the health of local ecosystems, including human health.
So the next time you happen to see a vulture circling, or even feasting, instead of the common gut instinct of “ew,” we challenge you to take a moment to appreciate the truly amazing microbiomes of these astoundingly metal creatures. And if you’re interested in how you can help declining vulture populations, we encourage you to check out the fantastic work from our friends at VulPro, one of our 2022 Quarters for Conservation partners.
- Geggel , L. (2014, November 25). How Vultures Can Eat Rotting Flesh Without Getting Sick. Live Science. Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://www.livescience.com/48899-vultures-bacteria-microbiome.html
- The Role of Scavengers: Carcass Crunching. National Geographic. (2022, June 2). Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/role-scavengers-carcass-crunching/