The Role of Scavengers: Carcass Crunching

The Role of Scavengers: Carcass Crunching

Scavengers eliminate harmful substances from the environment, mitigating the spread of disease that may otherwise impact not only local food webs, but potentially human health and the economy.


3 - 12


Biology, Ecology, Genetics, Health, Conservation


Vulture Feeding on Carcass

The cow medication diclofenac was banned in India because it poisoned and killed as many as 90 percent of that country's vultures. Here, a white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis), which is an Indian vulture, feeds on a cow carcass.

Photograph by FLPA
The cow medication diclofenac was banned in India because it poisoned and killed as many as 90 percent of that country's vultures. Here, a white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis), which is an Indian vulture, feeds on a cow carcass.
Leveled by
Selected text level

Vultures are important members of an ecosystem. They help keep environments clean and healthy.

All living things are in a food chain. Animals and the food they eat make up a food chain. Vultures are scavengers. They protect the environment by eating dead animals. From the air, vultures can find bodies quickly. This is important because bacteria can grow on dead bodies. Bacteria are tiny organisms we cannot see. Some bacteria can make animals and humans sick.

Vultures Eat, Remove Dead Animals

Vultures are effective scavengers. They remove dead animal bodies quickly before bacteria has time to grow. Also, their stomachs contain strong acid. The acid destroys harmful bacteria they eat.

Sadly, vultures are in danger.

Many vultures are dying after eating poison. Some of these deaths are accidents. Some vultures are being poisoned on purpose.

California Condors Making Comeback

One example of vultures being poisoned is the California condor. Condors have wingspans of about three meters. That's almost 10 feet.

About 30 years ago, there were only 22 living California condors. Many condors had been poisoned by lead bullets. The bullets were in bodies of animals left behind by hunters. Condors accidentally ate the lead and died.

Conservation efforts have helped save the condor. There are now more than 400 of them. Even so, it is still one of the rarest birds on Earth. Conservation is the protection of animals and their environments.

Drug in Dead Cows Kills Vultures in India

Another case of a vulture population almost dying out took place in India. This was caused by a drug given to cows. Large groups of vultures died after feeding on dead cows. The drug turned out to be poison to vultures. India has stopped using this drug. Other countries though, still use it.

Now, the African vulture population is being poisoned.

Herders put poison on bodies of dead animals. They are trying to protect their animals from predators. Unfortunately, vultures eat the poison and die.

Poachers are poisoning vultures on purpose. Poachers break the law by hunting. They do not want large vultures flying around. They are afraid people will notice and they will get caught.

The Trickle-Down Effect in Nature

If vulture populations drop, other scavengers take over. This could be animals like rats or dogs. They usually bring more diseases into ecosystems.

When the Indian vulture population dropped, the wild dog population grew. Cases of rabies also grew. Rabies is a deadly disease often spread through animal bites. About 50,000 people died.

There is hope for the vultures. Scientists are learning more about how our world is connected each day. People around the world are working to save vultures. They are an important part of the environment.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources