Field of Science

Where have all the vultures gone, long time passing?

One of the many fox squirrels that inhabit our estate failed to pass on their genes and the remaining population is just a tiny bit better at avoiding motor vehicles when crossing the street. While this is not a very big animal, nonetheless the presence of a rotting carcass was detected by the Phactor’s olfactory sense from a considerable distance. Now of course what should happen is that scavengers should have found is delectable bit of carrion, dined well, if but briefly, and then moved on having disposed of the body. Of course some scavengers did find the flat squirrel fritter, flies, and their offspring are dining away, and while efficient with the fleshy bits, they are slower than large scavengers. Now scavengers are not an entirely necessary component of nature’s recycling, bacteria and fungi will decompose things quite well, the problem is what you have to put up with in the interim.
Vultures are very efficient scavengers, but our native species, the turkey vulture, is seldom seen in urban settings, except maybe in Hinckley Ohio, especially on a semi-busy street, so the squirrel just sort of slowly rots away. Annoying but not a huge problem unless of course it was a bison that got hit crossing the street. Unlikely, but think about how long that carcass will be around!
Now consider India. Vultures were a common sight in India, massing in great numbers to scavenge, especially in places where bodies were regularly disposed of, and in a big, densely populated country, where diverse religious and cultural beliefs prevent people from handling dead bodies, cow, goat, human, whatever, vultures played an important role as nature’s recycling system. Even if the organism died of a serious disease, after being processed through the vultures’ remarkable digestive system and deposited as nasty vulture scat no health risk from the diseased body remains. So vultures served a body disposal service, until they began to disappear.
First it took awhile for people to realize that the loss of vultures was taking place. Then it took awhile to figure out why. And then it took even longer to act. The vultures were dying from dining on livestock carcasses treated with diclofenac, a mild painkiller akin to aspirin or ibuprofen. Yes, they can eat an anthrax infected carcass with no harm, but this seemingly harmless painkiller using in treating animals is very harmful to vultures.
The lesson in this is that delicate are the scales of nature, and complex are its workings. We humans tilt the scales and put wrenches into the delicate machinery of nature at our own peril. When will we ever learn?


CelticRose said...

Where have all the vultures gone?
Long time passing?
Where have all the buzzards gone?
Long time ago?
Where have all the vultures gone?
They have OD'd -- every one.
Oh, when will we ever learn?
Oh, when will we ever learn?

Okay, Weird Al I'm not, but I just couldn't resist.

The Phytophactor said...

You are too good!

Sally said...

They're here! But I think their tastes run to communal feasting rather than the occasional squirrel. Don't you have any magpies?

When indeed...?

Anonymous said...

We have - from time to time - a dolphin stranding in my "front yard", and large carcasses ripening in July heat is not something easy to ignore. My none too fastidious dogs think it's a treat! On the other hand, we have bald eagles and vultures to help with the cleanup - no doubt at some point the ravens and crows get a look in as well.


The Phytophactor said...

The only magpie, affectionately known as MaggiePie is one of our b & w cats.