Vultures are Gross-ly Important

Vultures may be gross, but they play an important role in the ecosystem.

Sure, eating dead animals is pretty gross. Even naturalist Charles Darwin described the turkey vulture as a "disgusting bird." But did you know that vultures serve a very important purpose in the ecosystem? By swooping in to remove animal remains, these scavenger birds clean up the environment and help prevent diseases from spreading.

Unfortunately, roughly half the world's 23 vulture species are threatened with extinction. In some parts of the world, vultures have been poisoned by eating dead livestock that had been given medicine that was toxic to the vultures. And in other parts of the world, they have been killed by poachers who don't want the vultures to give away their poaching locations, or killed by feeding on elephants poisoned by the poachers.

Though much of the world's conservation efforts have gone into saving big and cute animals like the polar bear and elephant, vultures need our attention too!

So many different vultures!

Vultures are found everywhere in the world, except for Australia and Antarctica. There are 23 vulture species, which are divided into two groups: New World vultures and Old Word vultures. The two groups are only distantly related and actually evolved separately to arrive at a handful of similarities—a biological process known as "convergent evolution." They all have a large wingspan, which allows them to soar with little effort as they search below for a meal. They also all have a sharp beak that hooks to enable them to easily tear apart carrion, the remains of dead animals. Otherwise, as you'll see below, the two groups of vultures are very different!

King Vulture

Photograph by Nick Biemans, Dreamstime

Red-headed Vulture

Photograph by Sergey Korotkov, Dreamstime

Learn more about vultures at National Geographic.