Photo: Manu + Claude (Flickr)
Despite their ugly and morbid reputation, vultures play a critical role in keeping ecosystems healthy. These scavengers act as nature’s “clean up crew,” and prevent the spread of disease by consuming potentially infected carcasses.
But how do vultures manage to eat diseased, rotting meat without getting sick?
Avoid The Rot
Their first line of defense is to avoid eating rotten meat.
This may surprise you given the vulture’s reputation, but vultures prefer recently killed carcasses. They will happily chow down on two or three day old carrion, but once it really starts to rot, they avoid it.
A second defense is a remarkable resistance to most diseases. Vultures can usually eat carcasses infected with such deadly pathogens as botulism, anthrax, cholera, and salmonella without getting sick.
Vultures cope with high levels of bacteria and parasites in their food by having extremely acidic stomachs. With stomach acid near zero pH, vulture guts are almost ten times more acidic than other carnivorous birds, like hawks. The extreme acid destroys most bacteria and parasites before they reach the vultures’ intestines.
Besides their strong stomach acid, healthy vultures develop a very strong immune system, with the ability to fight off the commonly ingested microbes.
Stopping The Spread Of Disease
While vultures were historically seen as vile vectors of disease, we now know they play just the opposite role–consuming sources of disease before they spread.
A flock of vultures can quickly consume an infected carcass, digesting the dangerous microbes before they can reproduce and produce spores, which could potentially infect humans and other animals.
So the next time you see vultures feeding on the side of the road, be grateful these natural “sanitation workers” are doing their job.