14 Things You Should Know About Vultures

iStock/Natalia Bubochkina
iStock/Natalia Bubochkina

Your mom always told you to be nice to the custodian—and speaking of clean-up specialists, have you thanked a vulture today? The scavenging birds do our environment a world of good. If you’re not a fan already, we hope these astonishing facts will help you learn to love them.

1. Vultures are divided into two major groups—which aren’t closely related.

With the exception of Australia and Antarctica, every continent has a resident vulture population. Ornithologists split the 23 living species into Old World vultures and the New World vultures (condors belong to the latter). Genetic evidence tells us that these birds aren’t close relatives; they independently evolved similar-looking physiques in response to environmental forces, a rare case of convergent evolution.

Old World vultures, native to Europe, Africa, and Asia, have strongly curved, eagle-like beaks and they can easily grasp things with their hooked talons. By comparison, the beaks on New World vultures, which live in the Americas, are weaker—and these birds aren’t as adept at using their feet to manipulate objects [PDF].

2. Being bald might help vultures stay cool.

Most vultures, in both hemispheres, have little to no plumage on their necks and heads. Historically, naturalists believed baldness was a sanitary measure, assuming that if vultures had facial feathers, they’d get drenched in blood and gore at mealtime. But it turns out their bald heads may offer another advantage.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow compared photos of griffon vultures in different poses depending on the temperature of their environment. They found that on hot days, the vultures tended to stick their necks out, and in cold weather, they tucked their heads underneath their wings. The scientists concluded that the birds’ bare skin helped them regulate their body temperatures because the skin rapidly loses heat. The trick may come in handy since many vultures have to deal with extreme daily temperature variation in their habitats.

3. Vultures poop on themselves—for two important reasons.

Much like their bald heads, their unfeathered feet and legs can also help vultures get rid of excess body heat. To aid that process, some species will literally poop on their legs and allow the viscous liquid to evaporate, cooling their skin. The waste serves an additional purpose: Thanks to their diet, vulture poop is highly acidic and acts as a disinfectant for their feet, slaying harmful bacteria they pick up while hopping around animal carcasses.

4. John James Audubon instigated a vulture war.

In 1826, John James Audubon challenged the prevailing belief that all vultures had an extraordinary sense of smell. Audubon’s field experiments with birds he believed to be turkey vultures convinced him that the birds used sight to track down their food. Divided over this issue, ornithologists broke off into rival factions: “Nosarians” still believed that vultures were scent-driven animals while “anti-nosarians” agreed with Audubon’s thesis. Both sides were partially right. Most Old World vultures are indeed guided by vision—as is the North American black vulture, which is probably the species that Audubon looked at in his experiments. But the turkey vulture has a phenomenal sense of smell, allowing it to zero in on carcasses from thousands of feet overhead—a nice compliment to the animal’s keen eyesight.

5. The turkey vulture doesn’t have a nasal septum.

The nasal septum, a wall of bone and cartilage in the nose, separates the left and right nasal passages. Turkey vultures lack this structure, which is also absent in yellow-headed vultures. If you look at them from the side, it’s possible to see clear through their bills.

6. Egyptian vultures can use tools.

With round-edged stones, the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) hammers away at ostrich eggs until they crack open. Once the hard work has been done, though, ravens will sometimes swoop down, chase the vultures off, and steal the exposed yolks. That’s life for you.

7. To locate food, some vultures follow the crowd.

Old World vultures keep a close eye on their neighbors. When one of the birds locates a carcass, another individual may watch its descent and infer that the first bird is headed towards a dead animal. In short order, a whole bunch of observant vultures can gather around a carcass, simply by following other members of their species. Likewise, some African vultures track steppe and tawny eagles over long distances in the hope that these raptors will lead them to a nice meal of carrion.

8. Many cultures have viewed vultures in a positive light.

Given their reputation as scavengers, people often think of vultures as disgusting or unsavory birds. But some cultures admire vultures and their scavenging ways. In ancient Egypt, vultures were thought to be especially devoted mothers, so they were commonly associated with maternity and compassion. Also, since the birds soar at great heights with an all-seeing gaze, the ancient Egyptians viewed them as living embodiments of their rulers.

9. The Andean condor has the largest wing surface area of any living bird.

From tip to tip, the wingspan of an Andean condor can measure 10.5 feet across. Although some albatrosses and pelicans can reach longer maximum wingspans, their wings are a lot skinnier than vultures’. The Andean Condor beats them in terms of total surface area.

10. Bones comprise most of the bearded vulture’s diet …

Using powerful digestive acids, the stomach of a bearded vulture—native to Eurasia and Africa—can break down solid bones within 24 hours. Bones and bone marrow account for 85 percent of the bearded vulture’s diet. To break larger bones into bite-sized fragments, the birds will drop them from heights of 164 to almost 500 feet.

11. … And the palm-nut vulture loves fruit.

A widespread denizen of central and southern Africa, this black and white vulture does consume small animals and carrion. But it’s mostly a vegetarian. The palm-nut vulture’s primary food sources are fruits, grains, and plant husks.

12. Without vultures, there’d be a lot of roadkill lying around.

Researchers have estimated that in the Serengeti ecosystem of eastern Africa, vultures devour more animal flesh than all of the region’s carnivorous mammals put together. As nature’s clean-up crew, vultures slow the spread of diseases—including those affecting livestock. And the birds help sustain plants by returning nutrients to the environment.

When vulture populations decline, other scavenging animals won’t always pick up the slack. In 2018, a research team deposited two sets of rabbit carcasses in rural South Carolina, with one set accessible to turkey vultures and the other inaccessible. They waited seven days, and guess what happened? In the vulture-free group, 80 percent of the rabbits were untouched by vertebrate carnivores, showing that coyotes, opossums, and alligators didn’t scavenge more carrion when not competing with vultures. In other words, when vultures vanish, a lot of rotting roadkill goes uneaten.

13. California condors have made a huge comeback.

Lead poisoning, pesticides, and active persecution have put vultures at serious risk. No fewer than 16 species are classified as endangered, threatened, or vulnerable. Around the world, captive breeding programs are trying to throw the birds a lifeline. Similar efforts have done wonders in the past. In 1982, the global population of California condors consisted of just 23 birds. Now, there are over 400 documented individuals, with more than half of those flying free out in the wild. Although their long-term survival as a species is by no means guaranteed, captive breeding—and increased public interest—helped reverse the condors’ fortunes.

14. Vultures barf on their predators.

Vultures have developed ironclad stomachs to be able to consume tough flesh and bones. Their extremely acidic digestive fluids not only break down rotting meat; they also kill pathogens like anthrax, botulinum toxins, and the rabies virus that would otherwise make them sick. Those fluids can also be a handy, highly corrosive weapon against predators. When turkey vultures and other species feel threatened, they upchuck a mess of semi-digested offal and acid toward their attackers and escape. This defensive vomiting may also rid their stomachs of a heavy meal so they can take flight quickly.

10 Facts You Should Know About Mosquitoes

tskstock/iStock via Getty Images
tskstock/iStock via Getty Images

Between the itching and the welts and the fears of mosquito-borne viruses, it's easy to forget that mosquitoes are a wonder of evolution, and that maybe they don't get a fair shake from us. Of more than 3000 known species, only 80 actually bite people, and at least one eats other mosquitoes for us. They grow from egg to adult in just five days, begin mating within minutes of hatching, and possess, by way of their stinging mouthparts, some of the coolest appendages in the animal kingdom.

1. Mosquitoes are excellent flyers in bad weather.

The average raindrop is 50 times heavier than the average mosquito, yet they buzz around in the rain with no problems. If a Boeing 747 got whacked with a similarly scaled-up raindrop, there would be 2375 tons of water coming down on it, and things probably wouldn’t turn out as well as they do for the mosquito. How do the insects do it?

A common urban legend said that the bugs were nimble enough to dodge the drops. A few years ago, a team of engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology watched real mosquitoes and Styrofoam dummy mosquitoes with a high-speed camera during a rainy flight to see if that’s what was really happening. They found that the bugs don’t fly fast enough to dodge the drops, but their slowness is what keeps them from getting knocked out of the sky. A mosquito’s low mass even at slow speed doesn’t provide enough of a target for a raindrop to splash on collision. Instead, the drop just deforms, and doesn’t transfer enough momentum to the mosquito to disrupt its flight.

2. Texas is the mosquito capital of America.

Of the 3000 species of mosquitoes around the world, at least 150 are found in the United States, and 85 of those call Texas home. When people say everything's bigger in Texas, you can also include the biodiversity of the state's biting, disease-carrying insects.

3. Some mosquitoes are truly dangerous to humans ...

The female mosquito, which is the one that stings and sucks blood, is an incredible transmitter of disease and, because of that, the deadliest animal in the world. Each year, the malaria parasites they transmit kill 2 million to 3 million people and infect another 200 million or more. They also spread pathogens that cause yellow fever, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya and West Nile disease.

4. ... and some mosquitoes are harmless.

Not every species of mosquito sucks blood from people, and among those that do, not every one transmits disease. The blood suckers don’t even need to bite you for every meal. Males live entirely on nectar and other plant fluids, and the females’ diet is primarily plant-based, too. Most of the time, they only go after people when they’re ready to reproduce, because blood contains lipids, proteins, and other nutrients needed for the production of eggs.

5. MosquitoEs actually help the environment.

When you’re rubbing calamine lotion all over yourself, mosquitoes might not seem to serve any purpose but to annoy you, but many species play important ecological roles. The mosquitoes Aedes impiger and Aedes nigripes, which gather in thick clouds in Arctic Russia and Canada, are an important food source for migrating birds. Farther south, birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards, frogs, and fish also eat different mosquito species regularly. Plants need them, too, and some, like the blunt-leaved orchid and endangered monkeyface orchid, rely on mosquitoes as their primary pollinator.

Some mosquito species are also excellent at mosquito control. Species of the genus Toxorhynchites feed on the larvae and immature stages of other mosquitoes and will sometimes even cannibalize members of their own species.

6. Mosquitoes are amazing hunters (as if we needed to tell you that).

Mosquitoes are adept at picking up on the chemicals given off by their human hosts. They can detect the carbon dioxide in our breath, the 1-octen-3-ol in our breath and sweat, and other organic substances we produce with the 70-plus types of odor and chemical receptors in their antennae. These receptors can pick up traces of chemicals from hundreds of feet away, and once the mosquito closes in, it tracks its meal chemically and also visually—and they’re fond of people wearing dark colors.

7. Mosquitoes can be picky.

If it seems like you’re always covered head to toe by bites while people who were sitting right next to you only have one or two, it’s not just paranoia; the skeeters actually are out to get you. Some people happen to give off more of the odors and compounds that mosquitoes find simply irresistible, while others emit less of those and more of the compounds that make them unattractive to mosquitoes—either by acting as repellents or by masking the compounds that mosquitoes would find attractive.

8. A female mosquito's mouth is primed for sucking blood.

A mosquito doesn’t simply sink its proboscis into your skin and start sucking. What you see sticking out of a mosquito’s face is the labium, which sheaths the mouthparts that really do all the work. The labium bends back when a mosquito bites, allowing these other parts to pass through its tip and do their thing. The sharp, pointed mandibles and maxillae, which both come in pairs, are used to pierce the skin, and the hollow hypopharynx and the labrum are used to deliver saliva and draw blood, respectively.

9. Mosquito saliva prevents blood clotting.

The saliva that gets pumped out from the hypopharynx during a bite is necessary to get around our blood’s tendency to clot. It contains a grab bag of chemicals that suppress vascular constriction, blood clotting and platelet aggregation, keeping our blood from clogging up the mosquitoes' labrum and ruining their meal.

10. Mosquitoes can explode.

Blood pressure makes a mosquito's meal easier by helping to fill its stomach faster, but urban legend says it can also lead to their doom. Story goes, you can flex a muscle close to the bite site or stretch your skin taut so the mosquito can’t pull out its proboscis and your blood pressure will fill the bug until it bursts. The consensus among entomologists seems to be that this is bunk, but there is a more complicated way of blowing the bugs up. To make a blood bomb, you’ve got to sever the mosquito’s ventral nerve cord, which transmits information about satiety. When it's cut, the cord can’t tell the mosquito’s brain that its stomach is full, so it’ll keep feeding until it reaches critical mass. At least one researcher found that mosquitoes clueless about how full they were would keep sucking even after their guts had exploded, sending showers of blood spilling out of their blown-out back end.

A New Jersey Pizzeria Is Using Its Delivery Boxes to Help Find Missing Pets

John Howard/iStock via Getty Images
John Howard/iStock via Getty Images

You might overlook dozens of “Lost Dog” posters nailed to telephone posts on a weekly basis, but would you miss one pasted to the top of your pizza box? One New Jersey pizzeria owner thinks not.

John Sanfratello, owner of Angelo’s Pizza in Matawan, New Jersey, is asking people from all over the state to send him their lost pet flyers so that he can tape them to his delivery boxes, CBS News reports. The idea occurred to him after his neighbor’s cat went missing: Though that cat has since been found, Sanfratello started to wonder how he could help reunite other lost pets with their owners. Since the pizza was getting delivered around the city anyway, he thought, why not add a message?

One patron of the pizzeria told CBS News she thinks the practice has “triggered a community effort by everyone” to pay a little extra attention to their fellow residents. And Sanfratello’s sister has also adopted the idea for her own pizza shops in Florida.

Angelo’s Pizza is currently spreading the word about two other missing animals: a cat and a Seeing Eye dog in training named Ondrea, who recently escaped her yard while chasing another animal. The German shepherd puppy has been lost for almost four weeks, and her owners said they’ve done everything they could think of—searching the woods, putting up flyers around town, and posting on Facebook—to no avail.

It’s a new spin on the old practice of printing photos of missing children on milk cartons, Sanfratello said. Though that may have fallen out of fashion in the late 1980s, Sanfratello has high hopes for this new partnership between pizza and pet owners.

[h/t CBS News]

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