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Eagle-Eyed Birds of Prey Help Vultures Find Food

Sep 13, 2014 11:31 AM EDT

Eagle-eyed birds of prey, it turns out, help ring the dinner bell for vultures that depend on them to find food, according to a new study.

Vultures, known for feasting on freshly-killed animals, or carrion, utilize the keen eyesight and sharp beaks of birds of prey to locate their next meal. Scientists believe this unique hunting method can help improve conservation efforts for the critically endangered species.

In order to learn a bit more about vultures, researchers at Trinity College Dublin focused on two species that live in Kenya. Using a combination of economic game-theory models and data from fieldwork, the scientists examined the vultures' feeding habits and behavior.

"We filmed interactions between eagles and vultures feeding at animal carcasses and our videos confirmed that eagles use their keen eyesight to find carcasses first, while the vultures simply 'scrounge' this information by following them to the carcasses," co-author Adam Kane said in a news release.

But the vultures don't just follow the eagles to their next meal. They also use the sharp-beaked eagles as a way to better access food, letting them tear open tough carcasses - a talent that vultures lack - before swooping in and taking it all for themselves.

While the findings tell researchers a bit more about animal behavior, they're also crucial for understanding how best to protect this endangered species.

"Vultures were once the most abundant birds of prey in the world, but their numbers have been hammered in recent decades by habitat loss, inadvertent poisoning, and hunting," said Andrew Jackson, who supervised the research. "Our study shows, as is often the case in the tangled web of ecology, that it is important to consider other species when trying to conserve vultures. In this case, conserving early rising raptors may help to boost the chance that vultures find enough food to survive."

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

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