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Vultures’ Digestive Secrets Revealed In The Nature Communications Journal

Vultures’ Digestive Secrets Revealed In The Nature Communications Journal


It takes special guts to be a vulture, scientists
said Tuesday as they explained a long-standing riddle of the animal world. The birds strip putrid carcasses to the bone
— and if the hide is too tough to pierce with their beak, they will happily rummage
their way to the innards via the anus. In doing so, vultures expose themselves to
toxins and microbes, such as anthrax and Clostridia bacteria, that would sicken or kill other
animals. The birds’ trick lies in an extraordinary
digestive system, according to a study by Danish and U.S. scientists published in the
journal Nature Communications. Honed by millions of years of evolution, the
vulture gut enables the creature to kill most of the harmful bugs it swallows, and cozily
co-exist with the remainder. The scientists generated DNA profiles of bacteria
communities living in 50 American vultures: 26 black vultures (Coragyps atratus) and 24
turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). Samples taken from the vultures’ facial
skin showed a massive variety of 528 types of microorganisms. But only 76 survived in
the gut. The most common gut bacteria — Clostridia
and Fusobacteria — turned out to be microbes that are widely pathogenic to other animals.
For example, Clostridia can cause a world of woes — botulism, gangrene and tetanus
— in people. The researchers also found that the stomach
acid of vultures is very strong and kills a good deal of the bacteria gobbled up by
the birds with the rotting meat. “Our results show that there has been strong
(evolutionary) adaptation in vultures when it comes to dealing with the toxic bacteria
they digest,” said Michael Roggenbuck of the University of Copenhagen. “On the one hand, vultures have developed
an extremely tough digestive system, which simply acts to destroy the majority of the
dangerous bacteria they ingest. “On the other hand, vultures also appear
to have developed a tolerance towards some of the deadly bacteria — species that would
kill other animals actively seem to flourish in the vulture lower intestines.” One of the researchers, ornithologist Gary
Graves of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington,
said: “These vultures will consume virtually any dead vertebrate — mammal, bird, snake,
fish. They prefer recently deceased organisms rather than extremely putrid carcasses. For
example, day-old road-killed deer are perfect.”

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