Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Species of the Day: Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)

The Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture is a species of vulture found in a vast range of environments. Gypaetus barbatus is found in the Alps of Europe, India, Africa and Tibet. This vulture is distinguished from old world vultures by its feathered neck/head (as opposed to the bald cranial regions typical of vultures). This vulture is usually recognized by its rust red colouration, however, the adult bird is actually mostly white. The rusty colour comes from the behaviour of dust bathing. The Lammergeier is also noted for having bristle-like feathers protruding from below its beak, hence the common english name, Bearded vulture.

The Lammergeier, like most vultures, lives almost exclusively off of carrion. Unlike most vultures, Gypaetus barbatus eats almost nothing but the bones of said carrion. Because the Bearded vulture cannot break large bones into digestible chunks with its beak, the Lammergeier has developed an extraordinary technique of bone destruction.

 The Lammergeier is famous for its habit of picking up heavy bones and flying high above piles of rocks. The vulture then drops the bones from heights of 50-150m onto the rock piles, where bones too large to swallow shatter into more appropriate sizes. The Lammergeier then swoops down and devours the small chunks of bone, absorbing the nutrients in the marrow.  Gypaetus barbatus can feed on bones up to 4kg (almost half its weight!) by using this specialized technique, and this method can take young vultures up to seven years to master. Although bone marrow makes up 85-90% of the Lammergeier's diet, the vulture has also been noted to use this technique on large live animals as well.

Watch the Lammergeier using this bone scavenging technique here:

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