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J Theor Biol. 2004 Jun 7;228(3):431-6.

Obligate vertebrate scavengers must be large soaring fliers.

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  • 1Division of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Graham Kerr Building, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK.


Among extant vertebrates, only the 23 species of vulture are obligate scavengers. We use an energetic modelling approach to explore the constraints imposed by an obligate scavenging lifestyle, and to ask whether obligate scavengers must always be avian and generally large-bodied users of soaring flight. Our model found that aerial scavengers always out-competed postulated terrestrial ones, mainly because flight allows area to be searched much more rapidly for carrion. Soaring was favoured over flapping flight because the reduction in flight speed (and so rate of area search) was more than compensated for by the decrease in the costs of transport. Large individual size is selected for if carrion is available in large packages, when obligate scavenger feed only infrequently, and so must be able to survive on body reserves in the periods between discovering food falls. In the absence of avian radiation, an obligate terrestrial scavenger seems energetically feasible, but we argue that such a beast is unlikely to have evolved. In birds, in order to become exclusive scavengers, vultures have needed to specialize for efficient soaring flight as a low energy form of travel, and as a consequence they have lost the agility needed to kill prey. In mammals, however, no comparable trade-off occurs. So for terrestrial carnivores there is probably no strong selection pressure towards being an exclusive scavenger. Indeed it will perhaps always be more advantageous to retain the flexibility of obtaining food by either predation or scavenging.

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