How the bearded vulture is able to eat bones?

The bearded vulture.

The bearded vulture ( lammergeier )is a majestic bird, measuring upwards of four feet [120 cm] from beak to tail.

It can be seen soaring effortlessly on its ten-foot [3 m]-wide wings over mountain ranges in Europe and Africa and, at times, at an altitude of up to five miles [8 km] in the Himalayas.

This stately creature, with its orange breast and neck and black-and-white head, has long bristles hanging from its lower beak.

It usually lives in remote and inhospitable regions.

Eating bones

Picture of a bearded vulture eating prey.

“There is no authenticated account of this bird ever attacking a living animal,” states The World Atlas of Birds, although it is known to eat fur pellets regurgitated by other birds, from which all flesh has been digested.

So, how is the bearded vulture able to feed on the bone leftovers ?

The bearded vulture carries to great heights the bones of animals that have been killed by predators or have died in other ways and drops the bones onto rocks below.

The assumption has always been that it smashed the bones in this way solely to get to the bone marrow.

Now, following detailed examination of living and dead specimens of the bird, researchers from Glasgow University in Scotland have been able to offer a different explanation, reports The Economist.

The bearded vulture (lammergeier) swallows bones in pieces as large as ten inches [25 cm] by one and a half inches [4 cm].

Yet, the researchers, to their surprise, found that the bird has no special digestive system, such as a gizzard, to cope with its indigestible diet.

The only unusual feature is an extremely elastic esophagus that enables the bone fragments to pass through.

Picture of a bearded vulture up close.

The bearded vulture stomach, however, tells more.

The scientists were surprised to find in the stomach a large number of cells secreting an unusually strong acid—harsher than battery acid—that dissolves the calcium of the bone, thereby liberating the protein and the marrow fat.

This food provides a higher energy value than a meal of the same weight of flesh.

Even more astonishing is the fact that digestive enzymes are found in such an acid environment.

So now the mystery of how this strong creature is sustained on such a meager diet of 90 percent bones has been solved—another wonder of nature.