How are animals, specifically carrion birds, able to eat rotting flesh without ill effect?


How are animals, specifically carrion birds, able to eat rotting flesh without ill effect?

In: Biology

In a number of ways.

One is that they can have stomach acid a lot stronger than that of non carrion eaters. This can kill a lot of bacteria.

Their immune systems have also evolved to deal with the bacteria and their toxins and so they have a large number of antibodies always ready to go to neutralise them.

And just like us they have bacteria in their intestines but they’ve evolved to use the ones that would be deadly to us to help them digest their food.

Humans are carrion eaters. Carnivores prefer their meat during or immediately after the kill.

Is there a point where something is too rotten for vultures to eat?

Two vultures are taking a vacation and try to board the airplane carrying a couple of dead rabbits.

“Would you like me to check those for you?” the gate agent offers.

“No thanks,” they reply. “They’re carrion.”

It so happens that if all of your ancestors ate rotting flesh, you too would be able to eat rotting flesh.

Just learned yesterday that they shit on their feet. This has two benefits. It helps them stay cool because they don’t sweat and the uric acid in the excitement makes them acidic enough that bacteria can’t survive on their feet despite standing around on carcasses.


I should add vultures are not eating “rotting” flesh all the time, though often they do. The carcass might be in the very early stages of decomp but the muscle tissue which starts essentially sterile may not be “rotten”. That said they happily devour the entrails as well which even when fresh are filled with bacteria. And this highlights something that we don’t like to think about in our own bodies, namely that our own intestines are filled with highly toxic dangerous bacteria as well. So long as the bacteria stay put in our gut every thing is fine. A vulture’s digestive system is colonized with bacteria which match their diet just like ours are. The fact that their natural bowel flora bacteria are also found in decomposition doesn’t mean that those bacteria are necessarily more pathological or disease causing.