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11 Facts About the Bone-Eating Bearded Vulture 

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The bearded vulture, or lammergeier, is one intense bird. It lives on a steady diet of bones and dyes its feathers blood red, giving it the reputation of one of the most metal birds in the animal kingdom.

1. Lammergeier means "lamb-vulture" in German

As a result of its appearance and diet, the vulture has a nasty reputation of carrying away lambs, calves, and even children. This is, of course, disputable; the birds are not known to be hostile toward (living) humans.

2. It eats mostly bones.

Eighty percent of the bird's diet consists of bone and bone marrow. Its stomach acid has a pH of about 1, so the dense material can be digested in under 24 hours [PDF]. The lammergeier is a scavenger; after finding a picked-over carcass, the bird will drop it from a tremendous height to shatter it into swallow-able pieces. Bearded vultures even have favorite breaking spots that are ominously called ossuaries. Besides bones, they also eat small lizards and turtles.

3. Wild lammergeiers rub soil into their feathers to look more intimidating.

Bearded vultures come in various shades, from pure white to orange-red. Soils stained with iron oxide give the birds their fiery appearance. Lammergeiers apply the dirt with their claws and then preen for about an hour to ensure a bright orange glow. They are also attracted to other red things, like leaves and red wood. Captive birds also partake in this behavior, which suggests the activity is instinctual, not learned [PDF].

4. The bright orange coloring is a status symbol.

The orangey soil doesn't have any practical purposes; it certainly doesn't make for good camouflage (though the birds have no natural predators anyway). Scientists have noticed that the birds' age and size are directly correlated to the intensity of color. It is theorized that the orange hue is a status symbol. More soiled feathers indicates that the lammergeier had the time and resources to find an adequate place to bathe; the brightest-colored vultures should have the most territory and knowledge of their surroundings. Interestingly, these baths are done in secret, so most of the information gathered has been through spying on captive birds [PDF].

5. Lammergeiers are monogamous.

Bearded Vultures are most commonly monogamous, and breed once a year. Sometimes, especially in certain areas of Spain and France, bachelor lammergeiers will join a pre-existing couple to create a polyandrous trio. Females accept secondary mates because it increases the chances of producing offspring and doubles her protection. The birds usually don't lay more than three eggs, so they can use all the help they can get. 

6. It’s one of the largest old world vultures.

These giant birds can grow up to 4 feet tall. They have a wingspan between 7 and 9 feet and usually weigh around 10 to 15 pounds. 

7. Its closest living relative is the Egyptian Vulture.

Together, the birds form a minor lineage called Accipitridae. Egyptian Vultures have white feathers with bright yellow faces. Unlike their cousins, these vultures are tiny; they're usually a little under 4 pounds, with a wingspan of 5.6 feet, making them the smallest of all vultures. 

8. They can live to be as old as 45.

In captivity, lammergeiers can live to the ripe old age of 45. The average lifespan of a wild vulture is only 21.4 years, but that factors in the untimely deaths that come with the dangers of the wild. 

9. Overhunting has led to the endangerment of the species. 

Believing that the vultures would carry off babies, concerned parents hunted the birds to the brink of extinction. The vultures were completely eradicated from most areas in Eastern Europe by the 1990s [PDF].

Today, the vultures have been categorized as "least concern" by the IUCN thanks to having a large range of habitats and the efforts of various environmental groups. 

10. According to the former president of the British Ornithologists’ Union, they make (mostly) great pets.

Thomas Littleton Powys, the 4th Baron Lilford, had a fondness for travel and studying birds. He often wrote about falconing, otter hunting, and his pet birds. The president happened to own a couple of bearded vultures and found them to be perfectly acceptable pets:

We have two fine bearded vultures, or lammergeiers, one of which (with a companion that has died very lately) enjoyed complete liberty since its arrival here as a nestling till a few days ago, when I was obliged to have it caught up and confined, on account of very conspicuous breaches of decency about the roof of the house and our flower garden. I extremely regret this necessity, as the sight of these large birds soaring about the place, generally pursued by a cloud of rooks, was certainly unique in England, and afforded to me, who am well acquainted with the lammergeier in its native haunts, a constant source of interest and pleasant memories of localities that are still to a great extent unspoiled by man. These birds of mine were very tame and perfectly harmless; indeed, with the exception of a few playful attacks on trousers, gaiters, petticoats and boots, I never heard of any malice on their part towards any living creature. Their natural food consists of carrion and garbage of all sorts, tortoises, and other small reptiles; and I hold the many stories that are current on the Continent, of their carrying off children, lambs and kids, as very nearly, if not entirely mythical.

11. There is still a good reason to watch out for them.

Greek playwright Aeschylus could not shake the feeling that he was going to die. A prophecy warned him of falling objects, so he was spending most of his time outside. Unfortunately, a large bird (most likely a lammergeier) mistook his smooth bald head for a rock and dropped a turtle on it. Aeschylus died instantly, and it's unclear if the vulture ever got his dinner. 

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 

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Oakley Originals, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
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Animals
Could Imported Sperm Help Save America’s Bees?
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Oakley Originals, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

It might be time to call in some sexual backup for male American bees. Scientists have started impregnating domestic honeybees with foreign sperm in the hopes that enlarging the gene pool will give our bees a fighting chance.

These days, the bees need all the help they can get. Colonies across the globe are disappearing and dying off, partly due to the increased use of neonicotinoid pesticides and partly from a parasite called the varroa mite. The invasive mite first landed on American shores in 1987, and it's been spreading and sickening and devouring our bees ever since.

Part of the problem, researchers say, is that the American bee gene pool has gone stagnant. We stopped importing live honeybees in 1922, which means that all the bees we've got are inbred and, therefore, all alike. They lack the genetic diversity that allows species to adapt to changing conditions or new threats. So when the mites come, they all get hit.

Many apiarists now rely on anti-mite pesticides to keep their charges safe. While these treatments may help keep the mites away, they aren't great for the bees, either—and the mites have begun to develop a resistance. But beekeepers feel like their hands are tied.

"I lost 40 percent of my colonies to varroa last fall," Matthew Shakespear of Olson's Honeybees told NPR. "I'm not taking any more chances. We've already done five treatments, compared with the two treatments we applied this time last year."

But there might be another way. Experts at the University of Washington have started to—how can we put this delicately?—manually encourage drones (male bees) in Europe and Asia to give up their sperm. All it takes is a little belly rub, and the drone, er, donates 1 microliter of fluid, or one-tenth of the amount needed to inseminate a queen bee.

Fortunately, the bees don't mind at all. "They're really accommodating," bee breeder and researcher Susan Cobey told NPR.

So far, the scientists' attempts to crossbreed foreign and domestic bees have been successful. Within their test colonies, genetic diversity is up.

"This doesn't mean they are superior in performance to the other bees," researcher Brandon Hopkins said. "It means we have a better chance of finding rare and unique traits." Traits, Hopkins says, like genetic resistance to the varroa mites—a quality shared by donor bees in Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Kazakhstan, and the Republic of Georgia.

Other beekeepers are opting for a more hands-off approach, introducing imported queens to their domestic hives. Shakespear bought his from Cobey, who reared them from bees she collected in Slovenia.

"Maybe these new genetics can deal with the varroa mites naturally," Shakespear said, "rather than having to rely on chemicals. It's time to start widening our gene pool."

[h/t The Salt]

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Natural History Museum
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Animals
London's Natural History Museum Has a New Star Attraction: An Amazing Blue Whale Skeleton
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Natural History Museum

In January 2017, London’s Natural History Museum said goodbye to Dippy, the Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton cast that had presided over the institution’s grand entrance hall since 1979. Dippy is scheduled to tour the UK from early 2018 to late 2020—and taking his place in Hintze Hall, The Guardian reports, is a majestic 82-foot blue whale skeleton named Hope.

Hope was officially unveiled to the public on July 14. The massive skeleton hangs suspended from the hall’s ceiling, providing visitors with a 360-degree view of the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth.

Technically, Hope isn’t a new addition to the Natural History Museum, which was first established in 1881. The skeleton is from a whale that beached itself at the mouth of Ireland's Wexford Harbor in 1891 after being injured by a whaler. A town merchant sold the skeleton to the museum for just a couple of hundred pounds, and in 1934, the bones were displayed in the Mammal Hall, where they hung over a life-size blue whale model.

The whale skeleton remained in the Mammal Hall until 2015, when museum workers began preparing the skeleton for its grand debut in Hintze Hall. "Whilst working on the 221 bones we uncovered past conservation treatments, such as the use of newspaper in the 1930s to fill the gaps between the vertebrae," Lorraine Cornish, the museum's head of conservation, said in a statement. "And we were able to use new methods for the first time, including 3D printing a small number of bones missing from the right flipper."

Once restoration was complete, Hope was suspended above Hintze Hall in a diving position. There she hangs as one of the museum’s new major attractions—and as a reminder of humanity’s power to conserve endangered species.

"The Blue Whale as a centerpiece tells a hopeful story about our ability to create a sustainable future for ourselves and other species," according to a museum press release. "Humans were responsible for both pushing the Blue Whale to the brink of extinction but also responsible for its protection and recovery. We hope that this remarkable story about the Blue Whale will be told by parents and grandparents to their children for many years to come, inspiring people to think differently about the natural world."

Check out some pictures of Hope below.

 “Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

“Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

“Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

“Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

[h/t Design Boom]

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