Vultures Prevent Millions of Tons of Carbon Emissions

Vultures are hard birds for humans to love, but new research might make you change your mind and, at least, love them a little.

Vulture sitting on the branch of a dead tree

Vultures are an obligate scavenger, meaning they get all their food from already dead prey - and that association has cast them as a harbinger of death since ancient times. But in reality, they are nature’s flying sanitation crew. And new research adds to that positive picture by detailing these birds’ role in a surprising process: mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

With their impressive vision and the range they can cover in their long, soaring flights, the 22 species of vultures found around the world are often the first scavengers to discover and feed on a carcass. This cleanup provides a vital service to both ecosystems and humans: it keeps nutrients cycling and controls pathogens that could otherwise spread from dead animals to living ones.

Decaying animal bodies release greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. But most of these emissions can be prevented if vultures get to the remains first, a new study in Ecosystem Services shows. It calculates that an individual vulture eats between 0.2 and one kilogram (kg) of carcass per day, depending on the vulture species. Left uneaten, each kg of naturally decomposing carcass emits about 0.86 kg of CO2 equivalent.

The avoided emissions may not sound like much, but multiply those estimates by the estimated 134 million to 140 million vultures around the world, and the number becomes more impressive: tens of millions of metric tons of emissions avoided per year.