Why vultures don’t get sick from eating rotten meat?

Imagine sticking in your head into a decaying carcass, it’s undoubtedly cringe-worthy. But vultures tend to think otherwise and enjoy such rancid meals. In fact, they have been regarded as Earth’s clean-up gang, keeping diseases from spreading to the other animals. But, remarkably, these large birds don’t get sick themselves by scavenging carrions. Why?

Vultures have developed strong adaptations to consume putrid foods. Their faces and intestines are brimmed with bacteria, which are commonly harmful to other animals. However, these scavenging birds have evolved to have a potent gut that prevents them from getting sick even if they munch on decaying flesh.

Typically, vultures wait for the animal bodies to decay and soften, avoiding difficulties getting animal flesh covered with robust skins. Flesh-disintegrating Fusobacteria and the toxic Clostridia help decompose dead bodies. However, they release poisonous chemicals, making the carrion poisonous to most animals, but not for the vultures.

These birds love to start munch on dead animals from the tail-end and the anus, and binge-eat on the delicious insides. Thanks to their distinct range of adaptations, they can devour decaying meals despite being covered with feces and dangerous bacteria.

Experts from different institutions collaborated to find the specific adaptations aided these scavenging birds depend on rotten flesh without getting sick. They studied the DNA sequence of the Eurasian black vulture and analyzed it in comparison with the genome of the bald eagle. Differences in the genes linked to the secretion of gastric acids and the immune system were discovered on the vultures’ DNA sequence.

The said variations suggest that the vultures’ evolved to have a more reliable digestive system. Once they ingest putrid fresh, their gut releases powerful acid to break down meat thoroughly. The acids are powerful enough to destroy even the dead animal’s DNA. However, they only destroy poisonous microbiota and filter relatively safe bacteria in their intestines. Then, their potent but pretty selective digestive system uses these filtered bacteria from the meat they eat to aid in digesting the meat they consume.

While the vulture’s digestive system is fascination, it would not work without the help of their immune defense. These scavenging birds have evolved to have an immense tolerance against the pathogens that entails rotten meals. Bacteria that commonly kill other animals tend to thrive and flourish on vultures’ intestines. Now, the combination of these two systems enables vultures to feast on rotten food, which is usually off-limits for other carnivorous animals.

With that ability, vultures who were historically regarded as vectors of illnesses actually works the opposite. They devour sources of diseases, even before they infect other organisms. A vulture flock can rapidly much on carrion, break down the meat and toxic microbes before the carcass even gets the chance to create harmful spores.

While science hasn’t solved all the puzzles yet, experts are studying the DNA sequence of vultures and their immense microbial defense. Any discovery can help improve human health, from preventing food poisoning up to protecting humans against certain infections. It needs ample research and experiments before any findings can be applied to humans. Still, it is promising how vulture’s unique diet and lifestyle can help humans in a multitude of ways.

More Readings:

Vulture (Wikipedia)

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