Are Vultures Decomposers or Consumers? (Answered!)

Vultures live in many different habitats including rainforests, savannahs, deserts and high mountain regions1. They can be found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia.

Vultures are not decomposers but scavengers. They feed on meat from fresh carcasses, making them carnivores. Depending on the food availability and species they may be either secondary, tertiary or quaternary consumers.

True decomposers also feed on dead animals, but contrary to vultures, they are microorganisms and usually the lasts ones to arrive!

In fact, the bacteria in a vultures gut are the true decomposers involved!

By using an energy-efficient method of flying (soaring), they can cover vast distances in search of carrion, relying mainly on their eyesight and in some cases (such as Turkey vultures) on smell1.

Vultures usually feed in groups, since different species of vultures specialize in eating different parts of the carcass.

As soon as one vulture locates a carcass, it starts a distinctive circling flight pattern, alerting other vultures. Within minutes of death, vultures of different species will descend on a carcass.

As cleaners of the ecosystem, vultures play an important role in eliminating diseases.

A wake of vultures is very effective at cleaning carcasses and will even eat tough parts like skin and bone.

Their stomach acid is so strong that it can kill most viruses and bacteria, including rabies, anthrax, bubonic plague, mad cow disease, and foot and mouth disease.

However, this does not mean that their intestines are free of bacteria. In fact vultures have hundreds of bacterial species in their guts that are vital to their digestion!

Why Are Vultures not Considered Decomposers?

Vultures are scavengers, not decomposers5. Scavengers feed on large carcasses, leaving only a few small, scattered parts.

The remaining pieces of carrion and the feces produced by the scavengers are then broken down further by detritivores and micro-decomposers.

Scavengers may eat rotting meat, but they do not fully complete the nutrient cycle on their own – the bacteria in their guts are the ones to decompose every piece of meat into the final amino acids and minerals readily accessible to producer organisms!

Decomposers like bacteria and fungi serve a fundamentally different function from scavengers in the food chain.

The bacteria in the guts of vultures are the true decomposers!

These microorganisms fulfill their role as decomposers by returning the nutrients of the rotting organic material back to the soil, water or sand where it is directly accessible to the producer organisms that complete the circle of life!

Some definitions of “decomposer” consider micro-decomposers (bacteria and fungi) to be the only decomposers, whereas others also include detritivores6.

Are Vultures Detritivores?

Vultures are scavengers, and not considered detritivores. However, if you consider detritivores to include all organisms that feed on dead organic matter7, then vultures would be included in this definition.

However, detritivores, as the name suggests, feed on detritus. The definition of detritus is “an accumulation of disintegrated material or debris”.

In geology it refers to a loose mass of stones worn away from rocks. In biology it refers to organic debris formed by the decay of organisms8.

Detritivore is derived from the word “debris”, which is defined as “fragments or remnants of something destroyed or broken”.

Therefore, the term “detritivore” usually refers to smaller animals eating small, fragmented organic particles, and include animals like insects, earthworms and millipedes.

Some larger animals, often found in the ocean, are also often considered to be decomposing detritivores.

However, it really depends on the species.

For example, some crabs may filter dead organic material directly from the water, which places them closer to true decomposers compared to the crabs that only eat carrion.

Are Vultures Herbivores, Carnivores or Omnivores?

Most vultures, except for palm nut vultures, are obligate carnivores, meaning that they cannot survive without eating meat.

Additionally, vultures are highly specialized carrion feeders, eating only specific parts of the carcass.

How Do vultures Eat?

Most vultures can easily be divided into three groups based on their method of feeding and preferred diet: Rippers, gulpers and scrappers.

1. Rippers are often the first vultures to arrive at a carcass, because they can rip open the skin, so that other scavengers can gain access to the softer parts of the carcass. Rippers include vultures such as the lappet-faced vulture and the cinereous vulture.

They feed on the tough parts of the carcass such as the skin and tendons. They have wide skulls and strong beaks.

2.  Gulpers, such as the Griffon vulture and the Californian condor eat softer parts, like organs and muscle. They have long necks to allow them to reach deep into the carcass.

3. Scrappers, such as the hooded vulture and the Turkey vulture, circle around the carcass and eat the small scraps left over by other scavengers, since their skulls and beaks are too small to rip through tough tissues or to swallow large chunks of meat.

Additionally, bearded vultures specialize in eating bones, in addition to meat. It will pick up large pieces of bone, fly high into the air and then drop them unto solid surfaces, so that they shatter into smaller pieces. They then swallow the pieces whole!

The palm nut vulture has an exceptionally varied diet for a vulture. This vulture is found mainly in central Africa, where it lives in forested areas close to water.

It has a varied diet that includes oil palm fruit, fish, crabs, insects, small mammals, green turtle hatchlings and eggs, and other birds, making it an omnivore.

Will Vultures Eat All Types of Dead Animals?

Although vultures will eat most dead animals, they do have preferences, especially when sufficient food is available to them.

Vultures prefer fresh carcasses and will avoid rotten meat if they have a choice.

Furthermore, vultures, like other mammalian and avian scavengers, prefer herbivore carcasses over those of carnivores, supposedly to avoid disease and parasite transmission.

Therefore, herbivore carcasses are more quickly visited by scavengers and more scavengers are present at herbivore carcasses than at carnivore carcasses.

However, vultures will eat carnivores, like red foxes and even other vultures of the same species.

The further related from the vulture, the less likely it is for the vulture to contract parasites.

Vultures will often fight over mates or food and therefore, sometimes, end up eating each other!

However, cannibalism is rare among vultures, and most vultures will avoid vulture carcasses, especially those of the same species.

It is generally thought that cases of cannibalism in vultures are the result of reduced food availability in their environment.

Do Vultures Also Eat Live Animals?

Vultures mostly feed on dead animals, but some will capture or kill live animals, especially weakened or trapped animals that can’t escape the attack of the vulture!

Some vultures, like the lappet-faced vulture, will hunt small prey like insects, lizards, small birds and rodents to supplement their carrion diet.

A vulture will eat whatever living animals if they are able to catch them.

Palm nut vultures, as already discussed, feed on a variety of live prey items, including fish, insects, mammals and reptiles.

What Type of Consumer is a Vulture (What is Their Trophic Level?)

As we have learned so far, vultures are considered consumers rather than decomposers and they are able to eat a wide range of dead (and living!) animals.

It is should be clear by now that they do not eat plants, so they are not primary consumers like cows and sheep.

However, their placement in the energy pyramid what kind of animals do they eat?

Do they prefer herbivores, making them secondary consumers (3rd trophic level), or do they also eat other meat eaters, which would place them at the 4th trophic level in the energy pyramid?

In fact, one would think that they do not care much for what they eat as long as it has meat on its bones!

However, as we will see below, this is not quite true!

Are Vultures Secondary or Tertiary Consumers?

Vultures can be secondary, tertiary or quaternary consumers, depending on the type of carcass they feed on.

However, because they often prefer to eat herbivores, they are most often secondary consumers – placing most vultures at the 3rd trophic level!

However, many variables such as habitat and species come into play, so vultures range all the way from primary consumers to quaternary consumers at the very top of the food chain!

Palm nut vultures, for example, are primary consumers to some extent because they feed on fruit!

The Palm Nut Vulture sometimes eat fruits, which makes it a true omnivore that would make it fit all trophic levels!

But since most prefer to feed on herbivore carcasses, vultures are primarily secondary consumers.

However, when they feed on omnivore or carnivore carcasses, they are tertiary consumers – placing them on the 4th trophic level.

When they feed on tertiary consumer carcasses (such as other raptors) they are quaternary consumers.

They may even feed on carcasses of quaternary consumers! But what comes after quaternary consumers?

Only other quaternary consumers that are all at the top of the pyramid! Or perhaps just part of the eternal circle of life

Watch this video about why vultures are the heroes of some ecosystems!

References

  1. Buechley ER, and Sekercioglu CH. 2016. Vultures: the collapse of critical scavengers. Current biology, 26: 2016 R560 – R561. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.01.0. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Cagan-Sekercioglu/publication/305277605_Vultures_the_collapse_of_critical_scav
  2. Linde-Medina M, Guerra C, Alcover JA. 2021. A revision of vulture feeding classification. Zoology, 148: 125946. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.zool.2021.125946
  3. BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Gypohierax angolensis. http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/palm-nut-vulture-gypohierax-angolensis
  4. Carneiro, C., Henriques, M., Barbosa, C., Tchantchalam, Q., Regalla, A., Patrício, A. R., & Catry, P. (2017). Ecology and behaviour of Palm-nut Vultures Gypohierax angolensis in the Bijagós Archipelago, Guinea-Bissau. Ostrich, 88(2), 113–121. doi:10.2989/00306525.2017.1291540
  5. Biology Online Editors. 2022. Decomposer definition. Biology Online Dictionary. https://www.biologyonline.com/dictionary/decomposer
  6. National Geographic Society. Decomposers. National Geographic Resource Library. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/decomposers/
  7. National Geographic Society. Food chain. National Geographic Resource Library. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/food-chain/
  8. Collins English Dictionary. 2014. Detritus. Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition. Retrieved March 14 2022 from https://www.thefreedictionary.com/Detritus+(biology)
  9. Van Dooren T. 2012. Vulture. Reaktion Books. 192 pp.
  10. Moleón M, Martínez-Carrasco C, Oliver C. Muellerklein OC, Wayne M. Getz WM, Muñoz-Lozano C, José A. Sánchez-Zapata JA. 2017. Carnivore carcasses are avoided by carnivores. Journal of Animal Ecology, 86: 1179–1191. http://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.12714
  11. Bildstein KL, Reeves M, Bobowski MM, Autiliio AR. 2014. Avian scavenger, but not conspecifics, feeding on the carcasses of storm-killed Turkey Vultures on the Falkland Islands. Vulture News, 67: 53-59.