Sunday, September 8, 2013

The New World Vultures: Top Ten Vultures (Part 2)

On Thursday, I published the first of our two-parter "Top Ten Vultures" posts, all in honor of International Vulture Awareness Day!  (Learn more HERE.)  In the last post, we looked at only the Old World Vultures, a group of birds that are native to Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Today, we will be looking at the New World Vultures who, despite their name, are not actually very closely related to the Old World Vultures at all!  Instead, the similarities in body design between the two different groups is a result of one of my favorite topics of all time, convergent evolution!  So let's do it: the last five of the top ten!  Meet my favorite five New World Vultures!  (For the previous post in the Top Ten Vultures duology, click HERE.)

5.  Number five on the list is the turkey vulture, a classic vulture for us Coloradans!  The only vulture alive today in Colorado (I suppose the occasional black vulture may wander in from the south), the turkey vulture is what many people think of when they hear the word "vulture."  I have noticed a lot (thirty or more) of turkey vultures circling this one place on the CU Boulder campus, so I am planning a little excursion to figure out what it is that is drawing them to that particular spot in such large numbers!  Recently, the folks at the Raptor Education Foundation brought a turkey vulture in to the Best Western Denver Southwest, a fun hotel that is currently undergoing renovations to become a functioning natural history museum!  (REF website HERE, BWDS website HERE.)  So here are some awesome pictures from that event!  If you guys ever get a chance to check out one of the presentations given by the folks at the Raptor Education Foundation, you definitely should go, it is a REAL treat!  In the pictures below, you can see the curator of the foundation, Anne Price, holding the turkey vulture, while the director, Peter Reshetniak (background), tells us a great deal about the bird!
4.  With nearly a ten foot wingspan, the California condor is the largest flying bird in North America!  (If you're having trouble visualizing ten feet, either go purchase ten one-foot long rulers and lay them end to end or, more simply, go find a good-sized California condor and stretch out its wings.  That's probably the best visual right there.)  The California condor is unfortunately labeled "Critically Endangered" by the IUCN, and it has experienced a pretty good comeback, and hopefully will continue to do so well into the future!  According to the IUCN website, the last six remaining wild individuals were brought into captivity for captive breeding purposes, making the species "Extinct in the Wild."  However, due to intense involvement from scientists, the species is on the rise, with around 213 individuals in the wild!

3.  Meet the only fossil vulture on our Top Ten list, Phasmagyps!  Some paleontologists are unsure whether Phasmagyps is actually a vulture, and this uncertainty is definitely understandable, as Phasmagyps is known from but a single bone!  If it is a vulture, then Phasmagyps might be the oldest known New World vulture!  Discovered in a Colorado quarry containing a number of fossils belonging to a 35 million year old rhinoceros called Trigonias, this single bone is now housed in the collections facility of the University of Colorado Boulder!  I'm not really sure what I'm doing yet, but I've tried to input a request to check out the bone, we'll see how that goes!

2.  Meet the Andean condor, one of the largest flying birds alive today, with more than a ten foot wingspan!  With an incredible lifespan of over 75 years in captivity, the Andean condor, much like most animals that live for a very long time, does not reproduce very quickly: and therein lies its vulnerability.  If, say, half of the population of Andean condors was shot in one year by humans, then it would take much longer for the population density to regain its former glory.  By contrast, if you destroy half of the population of, say, rats, then they would almost certainly regain their former numbers very quickly, as they reproduce at an alarmingly fast rate.  (The same principle applies to the California condor, who we talked about above.)  Fortunately, the Andean condor is nowhere near as vulnerable to extinction as its close relative, the California condor.

1.  At last, we come to my most favorite vulture of all time: the king vulture!  This guy is absolutely ridiculous looking, resembling a cross between a vulture, a turkey, and who knows what else!  It also has a very fun scientific name: Sarcoramphus papa!  Don't exactly know what it means, but I like to think it has something to do with being the Vulture Daddy.  I found on some sources online that the blood and feathers of the king vulture were used by the ancient Mayans to help cure disease, but I couldn't find any more information on that: all I found was the exact same sentence copied over and over again: "The bird's blood and feathers were also used to cure diseases."  An enigmatic sentence for a very engimatic looking bird.  But let's face it: it just looks awesome.

Thanks again for joining us today!  I do hope I have made you more aware of vultures of an international level!  But seriously, check out their page:

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