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.


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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.
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Vultures may not be considered beautiful birds. However, they play an important role in ecosystems and food webs.

Each living being is part of many different food chains. Together, all the food chains in an ecosystem make up a food web.

Vultures are scavengers. They eat dead animals and remove their bodies from the environment. This is an important job that goes beyond keeping the environment clean and beautiful.

They Help Protect Humans from Disease

Scavengers protect the environment and humans from disease. If an animal body remained in the environment even for a short time, bacteria would grow. Bacteria are tiny organisms that cannot be seen with the human eye. Some bacteria can make animals and humans sick.

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

Poisons Threaten Vultures

Sadly, there are some poisons that are deadly to vultures. Poison has been responsible for the majority of vulture deaths for the last 40 years. There have been so many deaths that vultures are on the list of endangered animals.

The future of vultures is an issue across the globe. Some of these deaths are accidental, but vultures have also been poisoned on purpose.

Almost 30 years ago in the United States, the California condor population was reduced to 22 birds. California condors are vultures whose wingspans can reach three meters, or almost 10 feet. They were accidentally poisoned by lead bullets in bodies of animals left behind by hunters. Condors accidentally ate the lead and died.

Conservation has been effective. Conservation is the protection of animals and their environments. Even though there are now more than 400 birds, the California condor is still considered one of the rarest birds on Earth.

Populations in Danger in India, Africa

In the 1990s a medicine used to treat cows called diclofenac greatly reduced the vulture population in India. The medicine turned out to be poisonous for vultures who fed on cow carcasses. Some studies estimate that 90 percent of the vulture population in India died. India has made the use of diclofenac illegal. However, it is legal in other countries.

Now, the African vulture population is in danger. This is due to both accidental and planned poisoning. Herders poison the bodies of dead animals to keep predators such as lions away from their herds. However, vultures often eat the poison and die.

Poachers are using poison to kill vultures on purpose. The poachers do not want large vultures flying in and calling attention to their hunting. It is not legal for poachers to hunt these animals so they try to keep their hunting a secret. They do not want vultures near the animals they kill.

African vultures are also in danger because some people trade vulture meat. Others use vultures in medicine. Vultures also die in accidents involving power lines and wind turbines.

Working To Save, Protect Birds

National Geographic Explorers are working to better understand and protect vultures. Dr. Corinne Kendall is studying behavior patterns of healthy vultures in Tanzania. Tanzania is a country in eastern Africa.

Darcy Ogada has written academic papers about the dangers to African vultures. She provides actions governments could take to help save the vultures.

Vultures are not the only scavengers in nature. However, they are often the most effective because they can see large areas of land from the air. As vulture populations drop, other scavengers (like rats or dogs) take over. This can throw off the ecosystem's balance, endangering wildlife and human health.

Important to the Food Web

For example, when the Indian vulture population dropped, the population of wild dogs grew quickly. Unfortunately, cases of rabies also grew. Rabies is a deadly disease often spread through bites from mammals, like dogs. About 50,000 people died from this outbreak.

This type of shift can affect local food webs and ecosystems. Because many scavengers are not as resistant to disease as vultures, they carry diseases into the environment. Without a healthy vulture population, the entire food web could come in contact with many deadly bacteria. This could even affect human populations.

These examples show how each part of a food web is important to ecosystem health. Changes in any part of the food web can have consequences for wildlife and human health. Fortunately, scientists learn more about how our world is connected each day.

Even though they may not be the prettiest bird, vultures are important to the environment. People around the world are working to prevent their extinction.

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

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