BIOMIMICRY: Bearded Vultures / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


A few days ago I was wandering around the BBC's Nature website looking for a good documentary to fill my spare time, when I stumbled upon this amazing creature! It’s a Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier, one of the rarest raptors in Europe, though it is refreshingly classified as “of least concern” in terms of conservation status.  This does not mean that the population is booming, but the habitat range for Bearded Vultures is large and varied so there is a small chance that their habitat will be threatened.

They have a wingspan of nearly ten feet and are one of the largest flying birds in world. 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: It is a true scavenger, which places it among the most important group of animals to our world. This guy is on "the clean-up team". Vultures have an important role in the recycling of organic waste. They prevent potential spread of diseases that flourish in rotting carcasses. Because of their unique diet consisting of bones they consume the really last parts of carcasses that would not been eaten by other scavengers.

Though these creatures are immensely beautiful, I'm more interested in their diet and clever problem-solving evolution. Bearded vultures feed on the carcasses of dead animals, but interestingly, 80% of the adults’ diet consists of bones rather than meat. This is unique among vertebrates and allows them to avoid competition with other vultures and eagles.

And here's the amazing adaptation that is an example to us all when it comes to thinking outside the box and making the most out of a "happy accident": Long ago, some Lammergeir ancestor found itself flying along while fumbling a bone from a long extinct species. The bone dropped to earth from a great height and was smashed open on impact, revealing the nutritious internal bone marrow. That clever technique became a unique angle for accessing a steady food supply and the birds that used it were the ones to pass on their genes (and behaviors) most successfully.



Modern day Lammergeirs have evolved in specialized ways to make the most of this practice. Its strong, large claws the bird is able to fly with huge bones and let them fall on stones from heights of 50 to 80 meters until they break and the marrow is exposed. The stomach of Bearded vultures contains a specialized high acid content that enables them to consume and digest bones weighing up to 4 kilos (9 lbs.) in less than 14 hours. And if all that was not amazing enough, these vultures have developed special bone-breaking sites or ossuaries which generations of birds use, above which they drop the bones.

            It is the stomach acid that interest me here, because it's so powerful. If we think about this animal through the lenses of Biomimicry  (my special interest since I was the age of 13) then this acid has a couple potential uses:        

Such a powerful acid could be used to dissolve and dispose of waste. The gases produced could be used much like a bio digester to create power. I don’t know how feasible this Idea is but it is an interesting one.  Of course this waste would be organic and this process would be an extension of composting.

These animals are truly striking to me and I will add them to my catalogue of interesting animals to mimic in the future!