Who’s the ultimate innovator? Mother Nature, of course. Need proof?
What if she were to design a creature that was the ultimate “recycler”? One that learned to rid the planet of dead things and to use rocks as tools?
Let’s dive into a brilliant example of Mother Nature’s knack for design from “happy accidents”. As with many of the most fascinating animals on the planet, the Lammergeier takes advantage of a totally unfilled niche in the food chain by having come up with a few ingenious adaptations.
Never heard of the Lammergeier? This gorgeous, enormous bird, often called the bearded vulture, has a wingspan of 2.9 meters (almost 9 feet!) and is one of the largest flying birds in the world.
Get to Know the Bearded Vulture
The name “lammergeier” derives from the German word lämmergeier, meaning lamb-vulture, stemming from a mistaken belief that it attacks lambs. But wipe that unappealing mental image from your mind: this bird is actually among the most important group of animals in our world: 100% of its diet is scavenged from decaying carcasses that would otherwise be spreading disease and making the world a disgusting place.
This guy is on our environmental A-squad: “the clean-up team.”
I know, I know, you don’t want to hear anything about vultures; but that’s because their PR department has neglected to publicize their unique role in our world! Help us right that neglect by diving in here!
Ever notice how carcasses beside a familiar roadway seem to just magically disappear? There’s no magic there, the scavengers in our world are recycling roadkill as fast as we create it. And they do so in all places and parts of our world. But the lammergeier’s contribution to that process is quite unique.
They’ve evolved an amazingly clever way to clean up the very last remnants of a carcass; they have found a way to eat the bones. In fact, unique to all vertebrates in the world, 80% of this adult vulture’s diet consists of bones rather than meat.
Though these creatures are immensely beautiful, it’s the evolution of clever problem-solving that is the amazing part of this story. Lammergeiers have found a way to get at the nutrition in bones, which allows them to avoid competition with other vultures and eagles!
Happy accidents can be useful
Some scientists think that long ago, a lammergeier ancestor found itself flying along while fumbling with a bone in its talons. The bone dropped to earth from a great height and was smashed open on impact, revealing the nutritious and soft bone marrow inside. Somehow, one or more of these smart birds put two and two together and taught their offspring this clever innovation.
Take a look at something a bit mind-bending when you pause to think about how this adaptation must have evolved from a few serendipitous events:
So that technique became a unique angle for accessing a steady food supply in a niche where there was no competition. They thrived and the birds that mastered this niche were the ones to pass on their genes (and behaviors) most successfully.
Evolution at it’s best whether we’re talking about Flying Snakes (check out our article on that!):
Or how chickens may be the dinosaurs among us!
Lammergeiers have evolved in other specialized ways to make the most of this practice!
They have immensely strong, large claws, that allow them to carry huge bones. And imagine the brain power it takes to let them fall very precisely on certain stones from 50-80 meters in the air, calculating for wind speed and the forward angle of travel.
In another critical adaptation, the stomach of the bearded vulture contains a specialized, highly acidic digestive fluid that enables them to digest the bones, which sometimes weigh up to four kilos (nine pounds). 2
And what does it say about their “social structure” to discover that vultures have developed special bone-breaking sites, or ossuaries, which generations of birds use, above which they drop the bones?
As a side note, ravens—incredibly intelligent birds on their own—have been observed trying to mimic the lammergeiers bone breaking technique, but do not seem to realize that the bones need to fall precisely on a very hard stone. So they repeatedly drop bones onto the soft turf and do not get the same results.
The sign of true intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. – Albert Einstein
If Einstein is right, then we’ve got a lot to learn from animals as clever as lammergeiers, crows, snakes and the lot!
Keep trying to ask better questions…that’s where all the insights are at!
~ Louisa Ulrich-Verderber
Do you love this sort of random wonder?
Well, there’s a lot more here!
Scroll down this page to find a few other articles related to this one, or head to the homepage to scroll down through the hundreds of articles EWC has written to prove this is still an amazing world!
Oh, and if you’d like to stay up to date with our articles here at EWC, please subscribe!
- “Wild African Vulture Birds Scavage Bones of Dead Animals – BBC Wildlife.” YouTube. BBCWorldwide, 4 June 2008. Web. 28 Jan. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxj9YO4Qtx0>. ↩
- “Bearded Vulture.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 31 July 2018. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bearded_vulture>. ↩