It goes without saying hyenas and vultures are undoubtedly coupled with death. And rightfully so as they are found lurking around carcasses awaiting the opportunity to steal whatever they can. Both scavengers play a crucial role in the ecosystem by being the final consumer and returning nutrients back into the ground. But out of these two – who is the best scavengers?
Scavenge /ˈskavɪn(d)ʒ/ (verb): search for and use anything from discarded waste.
Their main diet consists of carrion (decaying flesh) and due to their powerful digestive systems, they are able to digest this putrid food they prevent the spread of diseases in the bushveld. Cleaning up carcasses and recycling every last nutrient. The stomach acids of both the hyenas and vultures not only digest the decaying meat and shards of bone but also kills off the bacteria and disease preventing them from being harmed. Essentially, strong enough to dissolve diseases such as anthrax, botulism, and cholera (all of which are harmful to other animals).
Ranger Robyn Morrison recently wrote a blog The Real Circle Of Life: A Quick Note On Nutrient Cycling where she explains how the circle of life and different animals play an important role in the nutrient cycle – which vultures and hyenas are paramount to this process.
Using different tactics in finding potential food both are highly specialized in their senses to find food – and rightfully so as it is how they survive. The eyesight of the vultures is what aids them to find their food as they soar in the skies above while meticulously scanning the ground below. While these birds scan from above, the wandering hyena weaves its way through the landscape often with its nose to the ground or up in the air into the wind trying to navigate its way to a potential food source. Eventually, at times finding both of themselves at the same carcass – so it begs the question who is the better scavenger?
At Londolozi, we get 5 different types of vultures the Lappet-faced Vulture, White-backed Vulture, White-headed Vulture, Hooded Vulture, and on occasion the Cape Vulture. Between these different species, there is a hierarchy that exists as they all hold a niche in being able to co-exist and together effectively making the most of whatever carrion they can find. Guy Brunskill explored this hierarchy of vultures If Vultures Were Kids at a Birthday Party, Which Would You Be? where he explains how they co-exist.
The large strong bill of the Lappet-faced vulture allows them to slit through the skin of the carcass while some of the smaller vultures will await their arrival as they are unable to get through the thick skin of the animal.
“ I once was in sightings where a pride of lions had moved off a kill to digest their swollen full bellies which allowed the vultures to quickly move in. They struggled at first, all fighting to use the cavity created from the lions and then circling overhead was two Lappet-faced Vultures who soon descended from the skies.
They landed in a flurry of the White-backed Vultures which then all of a sudden halted as these two massive birds strolled towards the carcass. The White-backed Vulture literally parted to allow the Lappet-faced Vultures access to the kill as they were able to do what they weren’t- tear through the skin of the animal. Once the Lappet-faced Vultures had moved off it meant their was more access points to the internal flesh that remained for them to later feed”
While hyenas with given the opportunity they aggressively and furiously devour whatever they can quite literally bite on. They eat incredibly quickly and have strong stomach acids that are able to dissolve bone in their stomachs. Often when hyenas are finished with a kill they are almost no trace of the animal besides the skull or horns which remain. People often assume that hyenas don’t hunt but in actual fact, they can be proficient hunters even using bodies of water to assist them in their chase.
Another reality is that hyenas co-exist with predators as they know that the main food source for them – at the expense of the efforts of the predator. Leopards for instance often lose their kills to hyenas who pick up the distress call or scent of the prey. Sometimes within minutes of a kill hyenas swarm in and without fail overpower and ‘rob’ the leopard of its kill. This is why leopards will try and hoist their kills in a tree to avoid hyenas as they are unable to fight back for their food as it could result in injury and for these solitary animals if they are injured it means that they are unable to hunt and therefore could be fatal.
The interaction between these two scavengers at a kill is something fascinating to observe through different senses from the shirks and cries of the excited hyena to the hissing deathly squawks of the vultures as they messily entangle themselves and pile on the carcass, while the deathly scent that lingers. As time goes on, predators have moved off and hyenas have eaten all they have it is still the vulture that remains and ensures that they have made the most of every last bit of food.
So in conclusion, I think Vultures get my winning vote as technically to scavenge is to make use of something once it has been discarded. Whereas hyenas although, awfully efficient at eating discarded food, are often able to overpower and steal kills from other predators. At times they can hunt for themselves while the patient vulture will await its turn. Vultures are patient and spend time at a carcass as they then perch on trees nearby to digest their food or wait their turn to fly in. They simply wait… until the carcass is left unattended. They eat the small scraps and meticulously clean the remains of the bone while hyenas simply just chew and swallow what they can. Nonetheless, it is a close call, and although both are vital parts of the ecosystem I can’t help but give this one to the Vultures…
Let me know what you think and why… hyena or vulture?
Filed under Featured General Nature Ranger Safari experience Wildlife
Kirst, You took on a challenging subject! We have seen both scavengers in action many times at Londolozi! The screams of the Hyenas still ring in our ears as they fought with each other over a kill – not to be forgotten. The circling of vultures has helped us track leopards and lions. We agree that the vultures are more efficient at the work they do. The circle of life is not always pretty, but both of these scavengers clearly serve an important part in the process!!
Great blog and to me, helps dissipate the Vultures and Hyenas as ‘the bad guys’ as they are too often portrayed in the movies.
Great article on these scavengers.
You are lucky at Londolozi that you still have vultures. In lots of other parks you can’t see any any more because they are nearly extinct there.
Great lesson Kirst, thanks for the education about these scavengers. It is not a bad thing to have these Vultures and Hyenas around.
A very interesting blog Kirst – learned a lot from it. Thanks for sharing.
Kirst ,yes both the vultures and hyenas play a very important role in the bush and ecosystem. If it was not for them, the carcasses would be decaying and it would be a awful situation then. They do very good work scavenging and fighting for every last piece of meat. The sounds the hyenas make are quite nerve racking, but we must give them credit for cleaning up the carcasses.
Kirst, great subjects for this blog. I give my vote to the vultures who as you stated, wait patiently in the trees for their opportunity to descend and make waste of the carcass. I’ve observed both scavengers in action, around and in the remains of an old bull elephant, and the din from both was ear numbing. The hyenas were grabbing and swallowing until full and then left, whilst the vultures stayed and continued to pick away. There was a hierarchy observed because as some vultures were eating, a new group flew in and the others flew off. They both get a bad rap but as Robyn eluded in her article, they are necessary for the sustainment of life in all its forms.
I vote for vultures as well. Their tactic is impeccable to the last scrap. Also they are ugly but if seen in flight they have their charm…
Hyenas are incredibly scary as they move around the vehicle. To me they’re more terrifying than the vultures flying overhead. Thanks for clarifying their diffing approach to their “craft.”
For me it is the hyena. Simply because they also eat the bone and therefore leave nothing, whereas the vultures do leave bone and sometimes also not completely cleaned……. 😉
But I love them both!!
Super topic Kirst! Another perfect example too of how nature has it’s way of keeping the cycle of life turning in giving back what it takes and providing for all its creatures along the way. Vultures certainly win and may their numbers increase. Tragic that we have lost so many at the hand of poachers poisoning game.
brilliant article. I go with the vulture, too, as I am a bird person