Let’s be thankful for the carrion eaters today. The scavengers, the garbage pickers, the gleaners. Somebody’s gotta eat the leftovers, right?
Let’s talk turkey vultures. Those horrifyingly beautiful buzzards who can eat pretty much anything, including leprosy. Whose guts are full of botulism and power-microbes, capable of digesting the nastiest, deadest meat. Gross? Don’t think about it that way. We’re talking about 65 million years of co-evolution between bacteria and bird. A bird whose sense of smell is so keen it can detect, in flight, the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by decaying flesh.
The five subspecies of turkey vultures are native to North and South America. They’re a completely separate order from the Old World vultures of Europe, Asia and Africa. Even though both types of vultures share similar appearance and eating habits, they are descended from different ancestors. This is convergent evolution – the process by which natural selection influences similarities between unrelated organisms adapting to shared conditions. In this case, the ecological role of the carrion eater is now fulfilled by a total of 23 different species of vultures now inhabiting planet Earth.
So if you’re taking a walk this holiday weekend in the States, with a belly full of turkey, and you happen to look up in the sky and see these big, bald and lovely birds, soaring on thermals with their characteristic rocking-V flight pattern, say thanks to the Turkey Vulture.
Photo of vultures in flight courtesy of Pixabay.