A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) soaring on the thermals above East Camino Cielo Road high atop the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara.
According to a widely accepted theory in ornithology, turkey vultures use their feces to help cool themselves down during hot weather. It is called urohydrosis, which means that the birds direct their poop onto their legs and feet, which, through evaporation, helps lower their body temperature.
Vulture poop serves other utilitarian purposes, as well. The birds, by necessity, have cast iron stomachs that can handle the routine consumption of gangrenous and putrefying, bacteria-ridden meat that would kill many other animals. Although at a certain point of decomposition the birds will forgo eating carrion.
Powerful enzymes in the stomach work to metabolize biotoxins and when the vulture poops on his legs and feet, the same stomach juices kill microorganisms the bird picks up when walking on dead animals. Vulture poop is erosive, too, and it has been found to rapidly eat away the leather jesses used to restrain captive birds.
Yet, aside from serving as creatures of mere trivial interest, turkey vultures play an important role in the wild. Not only do the birds help rid the environment of rotting carcases, they prevent the spread of deadly affections.
“Vultures are one of the better disease control mechanisms out there,” Christopher Brand is quoted as saying in an Audubon magazine article from 2008. He is a research chief for the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. “They check the flow of infectious wildlife diseases such as botulism and possibly anthrax.”
Were it not for vultures then deadly contagions would be more prevalent. By eating rotting flesh that serves as a vector for disease, and killing microorganisms during the digestive process, vultures do away with some of nature’s most wretched pestilence.
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