Buzzards. Scavengers. Vultures. Bottom-feeders. Scum-of-the-Earth. Vermin. These are just a few of the choice words most commonly used by people to describe the politicians they can’t stand…or, more aptly, some of the most important animals on Earth.
Looking at this short list, it becomes obvious that we speakers of the English language have long held the decomposers and scavengers of our planet in very low regard. The fact of the matter is, though, these organisms are unbelievably important for maintaining stable ecosystems. Alas, thanks to their bad rep—a product, perhaps, of being villainized in everything from children’s movies to ancient folklore—these creatures are falling victim to hateful, ignorance-fueled violence from us: the weird, mostly-hairless, bipedal apes.
Stabs at our own lack of attractiveness aside, this really is becoming a huge problem. These so-called “bottom-feeders” are the bedrock of global food chains—they’re the garbage men of nature and without them, Earth would look a hell of a lot like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.
Allow me to elaborate:
Scavengers are the animals that eat the leftovers of other animals’ meals. They’re like the big brother who eyes your steak dinner for the entire meal and then swoops in as soon as you become too full to go on (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…). Without these creatures, there would be waste and uneaten meat sitting around everywhere, stinking up the planet. Most people are familiar with at least a few scavengers—animals like raccoons, vultures, and hyenas—but most don’t realize that lions, leopards, jackals, and wolves are all scavengers, too.
“Ew,” you say. “Why would a big, strong lion want, like, a cheetah’s leftovers? Can’t it go catch an antelope of its own?”
I’m glad you asked.
Though we, as humans living in an industrialized society, have the luxury of eating new, untouched food every time we are hungry, in the battleground of survival that is nature, animals are going to take whatever they can get.
Think of it this way: if every time we wanted a steak, we had to go outside, chase down a cow (only in this case, the cow is fast and agile and quite good at kicking), and kill it with our own bare hands before digging in, we’d have an enormous energy deficit all the time. An energy deficit like this means we’d have to eat lots more food to stay alive. But oh wait, that’s right, the reason we have the energy deficit at all is because of all of the running we did trying to catch our food in the first place.
So, I don’t know about you, but if I saw some smaller, weaker guy—a guy who I didn’t even like—sitting by himself with a family’s worth of steaks, I’d grab my friends and go steal his dinner instead of tearing around trying to catch my own.
In a world where it’s “survival of the fittest,” you have to take all measures available to help you stay alive longer and reproduce more. It’s Nature 101.
But what if you’re not big and strong? What if you’re a little guy—say, a tortoise? You sure as hell can’t catch anything, and it’s not like you could defend a kill even if you could hunt.
So what now?
Well, wouldn’t it be nice if your ancestors passed along the genes (thanks to this nifty thing called evolution) that allowed you to digest the food that nobody else wants? Hell yeah it would be nice! It would be like being the vegetarian at a tailgate: while everyone else stands in line for burgers and attacks each other over who gets the last chicken wing, you get the entire veggie platter (and the so-far untouched platter of desserts) all to yourself.
This is how the leopard tortoise operates. In addition to eating a well balanced diet of grass and other plants, this small, unassuming reptile also comes in and nibbles on the stuff that no one else wants: hyena excrement. Since hyenas are primarily scavengers themselves, they eat a lot of the bones leftover from the kills they’ve found and stolen. Hyenas consume so much calcium through this bone-heavy diet that most of it passes straight through their system unused, thus producing white, calcium-rich dung. Though useless to the hyena, all of this calcium is perfect for forming strong, sturdy materials in other animals…materials like tortoise shells.
And thus, one mans trash becomes another one’s treasure.
This kind of biological recycling is what we see everywhere in nature: an animal dies or is killed by a predator, and scavengers come in and eat every last bit of it, leaving behind only the blood of the kill and, later on, the scavenger’s own excrement. Then come the decomposers, such as the nemesis of all fruit bowls: mold. Decomposers like fungi and bacteria swoop in and break down these leftovers into nutrients usable by plants (cue “Circle of Life” music).
This is why it’s so unbelievably important to have these decomposing bacteria and fungi and these scavenging animals around. There isn’t much people do to drastically harm bacteria and fungi, apart from using Purell to kill “germs” (which is not necessarily good for you) and kicking mushrooms (which actually causes them to release their spores and make more mushrooms). For animals, though, the story is different. While a bacteria can take as little as four minutes to reproduce, and fungus can take just four days, a scavenger like a vulture takes a full year to produce a chick. Also, instead of producing thousands of offspring at a time like fungi, they only produce one egg each year. With the survival rate of chicks only one in seven, the world is at high risk for losing the invaluable animals that make the decomposition process jump from “break down an entire carcass” to “break down this pile of poop.”
Right now, all across Africa, local farmers are poisoning buzzards, vultures, and other scavengers. The reason—for the vultures, at least—is rooted in superstition and lore about their bodies having magical qualities. Yet even in the States, there are still plenty of vultures dying, and it’s not because we think their bones will help us see into the future. There are plenty of drivers who will actually swerve to intentionally hit vultures because they’re big, bald, ugly, and have a different taste in food than we do. Since most vultures only produce one chick every year (with that survival rate of only one in seven), this is obviously becoming a huge problem. Without these animals, our world could very well turn into a landfill of slowly decomposing dead things.
So while endangered animals like rhinos and elephants and tigers absolutely need your financial and moral support, show the scavengers a little love, too. The world can’t carrion with out them.
To learn and see more about vultures, check out this video by National Geographic