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Buechley and Sekercioglu introduce vultures, the supreme avian scavengers that now face multiple threats. Available for free @ http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(16)00134-2
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Current Biology
Magazine
R560 Current Biology 26, R543–R576, July 11, 2016 © 2016 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Vultures
Evan R. Buechley*
and Cagan H. Sekercioglu
What are vultures? Vultures are large,
obligate scavenging birds that eat dead
vertebrates. There are 23 species of
vulture, inhabiting diverse biomes from
the Amazonian rainforest and East
African savannahs, to the Sahara Desert
and high Himalayas. There are two main
groups of vultures: Old World vultures of
the Accipitridae family, found in Europe,
Africa, and Asia, and New World
vultures of the Cathartidae family, found
in North and South America. It was long
believed that New World vultures were
more closely related to storks than to
Old World vultures. However, recent
molecular evidence indicates that
they are likely to be sister taxa. Either
way, the scavenging habits of these
groups are thought to have evolved
independently, leading to adaptations
like large bodies, broad wings, powerful
beaks and featherless heads.
How do vultures fi nd and feast on
rotting fl esh? Carrion is a temporally and
spatially unpredictable resource, which
vultures are uniquely adapted to exploit.
They soar to search for food over vast
areas with minimal energy expenditure.
Accordingly, vultures have some of the
largest ranges of any animals on Earth.
While only three of 23 vulture species are
true long-distance migrants (turkey, black
and Egyptian vultures), others, such as
those in the genus Gyps, e.g. Eurasian
griffon vultures, have individual foraging
ranges of hundreds of thousands of
square-kilometers (approximately the
size of Spain). Vultures are also among
the largest birds in the world, which
enables them to store suffi cient energy
while covering vast distances in search of
their next meal. For example, the Andean
condor weighs over 11 kg and has an
impressive wingspan of up to 3.2 m.
Even more impressively, the extinct
vulture Argentavis magnifi cens had a
wingspan of approximately 7 m and a
mass of around 80 kg.
Effi cient energy management is a key
adaptation of vultures. For instance,
vultures’ featherless heads were long
thought to be an adaptation to keep
Quick guide
carrion under dense rainforest canopies
or buried beneath leaf litter and can lead
their relatives, the black and king vultures,
to hidden meals they otherwise would
not fi nd. Mammalian scavengers, such as
jackals and hyenas, also follow vultures,
making them a keystone species of the
scavenger community. Once they drop
to a carcass, a group of feeding vultures,
known as a ‘wake’, can facilitate ripping
through tough hide, fend off competitors,
and warn of potential threats.
Interestingly, vultures have highly
specialized feeding niches. In the
African savannah, Ruppell’s and white-
backed vultures gorge on internal
organs; lappet-faced vultures use their
powerful beaks to dine on ligaments
and hide; white-headed and hooded
vultures circle the feeding frenzy picking
up scraps; and then the massive
bearded vulture, the world’s only
vertebrate osteophage (bone-eating
specialist), swallows large chunks of the
skeleton whole or carries and drops the
bones at an ossuary to break them into
clean while foraging on rotting fl esh.
But, new research suggests that when
vultures change posture, they can
expose or cover large swaths of skin
with their neck feathers allowing them
to manage thermal radiation. Another
unusual heat management adaptation is
urohydration — or the New World vultures’
habit of defecating and urinating on their
legs, which provides evaporative cooling.
To effi ciently locate carrion, vultures
use cues from their cohorts. From their
vantage point, high in the sky, most
vulture species rely on vision to fi nd
food. This poses a challenge because
carcasses are not moving and may be
obstructed from view. However, when
one bird fi nds and circles a carcass, it
alerts its comrades of a potential meal.
Soon, more curious vultures investigate,
forming a ‘kettle’, a group of vultures
circling a carcass, which indicates an
impending feast to scavengers far and
wide. Furthermore, New World vultures
in the genus Cathartes also have a keen
sense of smell: turkey vultures can locate
Figure 1. Vultures.
Critically Endangered white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) in Ethiopia.
Current Biology
Magazine
Current Biology 26, R543–R576, July 11, 2016 © 2016 Elsevier Ltd. R561
smaller pieces. After the vultures’ wake,
often little remains of the carcass.
How are vultures doing? Nine of 23
vulture species (39%) are classed as
‘Critically Endangered’, i.e. on the brink
of extinction (Figure 1). An additional
three species are Endangered, four are
Near Threatened, and seven are Least
Concern. Over the past three decades,
vultures have declined catastrophically,
especially in Asia and Africa, and are
now the most threatened group of bird
in the world. Persecution, decreasing
food availability, habitat destruction,
and collision with energy infrastructure
all threaten vultures. However,
poisoning is the most imminent and
dire threat, as it is incredibly effective at
killing vultures. For example, in 2013, a
single contaminated elephant carcass
in Namibia killed 600 vultures.
Throughout Africa, vulture populations
are crashing. Over three generations,
the bearded vulture declined by 70%,
while seven other species declined
by 80% or more. Accordingly, four
African vulture species were classed
as Critically Endangered in 2015. The
deliberate poisoning of mammalian
carnivores, such as jackals, hyenas, and
lions, to avenge livestock loss, has led
to widespread unintentional poisoning
of vultures. And now, with the boom of
illegal rhino and elephant hunting across
the continent, poachers are intentionally
poisoning vultures because their
carcass circling cues can quickly lead
authorities to the scene of the crime.
The current acute situation in Africa is a
worrying déjà vu of the extreme declines
in South Asia, where populations of
three vulture species declined by >95%
between 1992 and 2007 due to poisoning
from the anti-infl ammatory veterinary
drug Diclofenac. This drug, widely used
to treat pain and swelling in sacred cattle,
causes kidney failure in vultures after
ingestion. Because of the drug’s lethality
and vultures’ social foraging, only <1% of
livestock carcasses would have needed
to contain the drug to account for these
declines. Encouragingly, India, Pakistan
and Iran have banned the use of the drug
for veterinary purposes, but it remains
on the market in many other countries,
including throughout Europe.
Why should we care about vulture
declines? By quickly locating
and consuming carrion, vultures
outcompete and control problematic
facultative scavengers (like feral dogs
and rats), insects, and microorganisms.
When vulture populations decline,
carrion becomes increasingly available
to other organisms, in a form of terrestrial
eutrophication. Currently, many facultative
scavenger populations are increasing
worldwide, causing signifi cant top-down
ecosystem effects via predation, invasion
and competition. Furthermore, carcasses
provide a reservoir and vector for many
diseases, including rabies, chronic
wasting, anthrax, bubonic plague, mad
cow, foot and mouth, etc. Vultures have
extremely acidic stomachs (pH = 1.0)
where most viruses and bacteria cannot
survive. When vultures eat carcasses,
they actively remove these pathogens
from the environment, as well as preempt
the colonization and reproduction of
pestilent insects.
Vultures offer valuable ecosystem
services and are a fascinating group
of birds highly adapted for their unique
lifestyle. They have often been portrayed
as malevolent creatures preying on
the sick and weary. But the reality
could not be further from the truth:
vultures are the “soap of the savannah”,
quickly and effi ciently removing waste,
controlling pests, and preventing
disease outbreaks — all free of charge.
And, as true apex carnivores — eating
all animals in the food chain, including
lions, tigers, and bears — they are
excellent indicators of ecosystem health.
Where can I fi nd out more?
Buechley, E.R., and Sekercioglu, Ç.H. (2016) The
avian scavenger crisis: Looming extinctions,
trophic cascades, and loss of critical ecosystem
functions. Biol. Conservat. 198, 220–228.
Markandya, A., Taylor, T., Longo, A., Murty, M.N.,
Murty, S., and Dhavala, K. (2008). Counting
the cost of vulture decline—An appraisal of the
human health and other benefi ts of vultures in
India. Ecol. Econ. 67, 194–204.
Mundy, P.P., Bunchart, D., Ledger, J., and Piper, S.
(1993). The Vultures of Africa (Academic Press).
Ogada, D.L., Keesing, F., and Virani, M. (2012).
Dropping dead: causes and consequences of
vulture population declines worldwide. Ann. N.Y.
Acad. Sci. 1249, 57–71.
Royet, E. (2016). Vultures are Revolting. Here’s
Why We need to Save Them. Natl. Geogr. Mag.
Available at: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.
com/2016/01/vultures-text.
Sodhi, N.S., Sekercioglu, C.H., Robinson, S., and
Barlow, J. (2011). Conservation of Tropical Birds.
Wiley-Blackwell. Oxford.
Wilson, E.E., and Wolkovich, E.M. (2011). Scavenging:
how carnivores and carrion structure communities.
Trends Ecol. Evol. 26, 129–135.
University of Utah, Department of Biology, 257 S.
1400 E. Rm. 201, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.
*E-mail: e.buechley@utah.edu
Microbiology of
death
Jessica L. Metcalf1,2,*,
David O. Carter3, and Rob Knight2,4,5
When a mammal dies, what
happens? Decomposition happens.
When a mammal dies its immune
system shuts down, internal
temperatures change, and internal
bacteria begin to grow in ways
impossible while under the constraints
of a living host. The internal
environment then experiences another
major event: rupture a break in the
skin that allows air, microbes, and
insects to enter, and bodily fl uids to
exit. A carcass releases large amounts
of nitrogen into the environment,
mostly in the form of ammonia, as well
as carbon, phosphorous, and other
nutrients important for life. A dead
body becomes a hotspot of nutrients,
water, and ecological activity.
How do we study mammalian
decomposition? What is an
anthropological research facility?
You may have heard the term ‘body
farm’ in the news or on popular
forensic science shows like Bones
or CSI. In the scientifi c community,
these research centers are more
appropriately called ‘anthropological
research facilities’, and are important
for studying the anthropological,
ecological, and forensic science
implications of mammalian
decomposition. Because of the
interest in human decomposition
for anthropology and its practical
importance in forensic science, these
facilities use human donors for fi eld
experiments to test the effects of
different variables on taphonomy the
processes of decomposition. Some
facilities also use pigs, which are good
biological proxies for humans and
allow for more replicates and better
control over factors such as age,
weight, and sex.
What organisms are involved in
decomposition? Decomposition is
one of the most important ecosystem
processes if it were not effi ciently
Quick guide
... V ultures are an avian species and are deemed as the most successful scavengers and at the highest level of decomposers (Samson et al., 2018). There are 23 species of vultures found across the world, including areas like the Amazon forests, African savannas, Saharan deserts, and high roof of Himalayas (Buechley and Sekercioglu, 2016). They act as an obligate scavenger and provide important economic, ecologic, and cultural services to mankind (Sekercioglu, 2006). ...
... tenuirostris, G. bengalensis, G. indicus) is an important issue. This high drop off in the vulture population was found due to exposure of these birds to diclofenac Johnson et al., 2008;Rattner et al., 2008;Naidoo and Swan, 2009;Buechley and Sekercioglu, 2016;Galligan et al., 2016). This drug was found extremely toxic to vulture populations and mortality resulted within few days after exposure (Rattner et al., 2008;Johnson et al., 2008;Naidoo and Swan, 2009). ...
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... However, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, Andean condor populations are globally near-threatened and declining (BirdLife International, 2019), because, besides having very low reproductive rates, they have been threatened by anthropogenic effects such as: poisoning by pesticides, lead ammunition and toxic baits, collisions with power lines, poaching, snare traps and decrease in food (Campbell, 2016;Pavez & Estades, 2016;Wiemeyer et al., 2017). Although vulture species are essential for ecosystem health and functioning, providing a highly effective sanitation service (Monadjem, Kane, Botha, Kelly, & Murn, 2018;Muñoz-Lozano et al., 2019;Ogada, Keesing, & Virani, 2012), they have experienced the most rapid decline in conservation status of any group of birds over the past decade and comprise the most threatened avian group in the world (Buechley & Şekercioğlu, 2016a(Buechley & Şekercioğlu, , 2016bOgada et al., 2012). ...
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Vultures, which are the only obligate vertebrate scavengers, have experienced the most rapid decline in conservation status of any group of birds over the past decade and comprise the most threatened avian functional guild in the world. Of the 22 vulture species, nine are critically endangered, three are endangered, four are near threatened, and six are least concern. Meanwhile, the vast majority of avian facultative scavenger species, such as corvids and gulls, have stable or increasing populations. We analyze the causes of this stark contrast in status and evaluate what ecological factors contribute to extinction risk for all 106 avian scavenger species. A random forest model shows that diet breadth, proportion scavenged diet, geographic realm, body mass, clutch size and taxonomy are leading predictors of extinction risk. Meanwhile, dietary toxins – most notably poisons and the veterinary drug diclofenac – are by far the most important anthropogenic threat to avian scavengers, comprising the leading cause of decline for 59% of threatened avian scavenger species and 88% of threatened vulture species. Currently, 73% of vulture species are extinction-prone (near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered and extinct) and 77% have declining populations, while only 13% of avian facultative scavenger species are extinction-prone and 70% have stable or increasing populations. As vultures decline, populations of many facultative scavengers are growing, causing trophic cascades from increased predation, competition, and invasion. Furthermore, vultures' highly specialized digestive systems efficiently eradicate diseases when consuming carrion, whereas facultative scavengers are more susceptible to contract and transmit diseases among themselves and to humans. We urge immediate action, particularly by regulating lethal dietary toxins, to prevent the extinction of vultures and loss of respective ecosystem services.
Article
Recent advances in the ecology of food webs underscore the importance of detritus and indirect predator-prey effects. However, most research considers detritus as an invariable pool and predation as the only interaction between carnivores and prey. Carrion consumption, scavenging, is a type of detrital feeding that should have widespread consequences for the structure and stability of food webs. Providing access to high-quality resources, facultative scavenging is a ubiquitous and phylogenetically widespread strategy. In this review, we argue that scavenging is underestimated by 16-fold in food-web research, producing inflated predation rates and underestimated indirect effects. Furthermore, more energy is generally transferred per link via scavenging than predation. Thus, future food-web research should consider scavenging, especially in light of how major global changes can affect scavengers.
Vultures are Revolting. Here's Why We need to Save Them
  • E Royet
Royet, E. (2016). Vultures are Revolting. Here's Why We need to Save Them. Natl. Geogr. Mag. Available at: http://ngm.nationalgeographic. com/2016/01/vultures-text.