That’s one heck of a fruity cocktail. Or perhaps, let’s say, a juicy morsel of meat.
Zoo Miami scientists have discovered how one species of predatory vulture can eat meat while avoiding the consequences of feeding on dirty splatters of meat — a neat trick that has made vultures so valuable on plate.
In a series of experiments, researchers showed that seven different types of vulture — five species of vulture and two zoo vultures — were able to eat large quantities of different meals and still avoid mixing their intestines with feces-like filler.
In order to avoid fouling up their stomachs, vultures use specialized microbes, called mites, that were developed by the savanna vulture only in response to the unique demands of their wild food diet.
“The key to the problem is the way in which these vultures train their gut bacteria to not mix with,” said Mike Puentes, a lead author on the study. “You are training the bacteria so that it doesn’t compete with their own normal gut bacteria.”
Puentes added that eating contaminated meat doesn’t necessarily spoil the flavor of their food source, as many other birds and mammals often do.
Since vultures don’t tend to be found feeding on other types of contaminated food, their special microbes are able to deal with the toxic compounds that can result from the foods they eat, according to Puentes.
Though they’re foraging for meat in a confined indoor setting, vultures are notable for being omnivores and are known for feasting on everything from well-stocked barnyard to exotic creatures such as gazelles and wild boars. But despite their size — the average male vulture can reach 6 feet high — vultures can sprint at over a 10 mph and fly at nearly 50 mph.
Back in the wild, the savanna vulture, while not as big, has similar slow acceleration and high velocity.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the U.S. has an estimated 110 million vultures in its wild population, though they were largely hunted during the middle and latter part of the 20th century. At one point, there were only 6 million wild vultures left, according to zoo Miami.
Yet, since 1970, the number of those vultures in the wild has increased from 5 million to 80 million in 2014, thanks to an international program to protect them.
What does all of this mean for your everyday birds?
“I think it shows that using bacteria that are suitable for food and nutrients is something that every bird — whether a small house sparrow or a kingfisher — could learn from,” Puentes said.
A version of this story first appeared on Mongabay.