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Nature Notebook – Vultures

The sight of a necrophagous bird feasting on its roadkill meal repulses many people. However, these scavengers, particularly turkey vultures, are important “germ cleansers.”

When they eat animals that died from a bacterial or viral infection, they prevent those microbes from spreading. Studies have proven that their droppings and dry pellets (like owl pellets) have no sign of disease.

So why don’t the vultures get sick? A vulture’s stomach juices are so acidic that they destroy most pathogens. They are 10 to 100 times more acidic than human stomach juices. However, some hardy microbes can survive in this environment.

Fortunately, vultures have what has been described as the “strongest immune system among vertebrates.” Blood tests have shown that vultures have very high amounts of antibodies against salmonella and botulinum toxins. Biologists aren’t sure if this is a genetic trait or if young birds develop the immunity after ingesting small amounts of infected food throughout their “childhood.”

Next time you see a vulture, thank it for reducing the germ count!