Gypaetus – Bearded vulture

The only living creature that feeds on bone marrow from carcasses in high and inaccessible mountain areas

The Bearded Vulture is one of the most distinctive members of the vulture family. As adults, they possess a striking appearance with an orange-rust color on their underside and a dark underwing contrasted against a slate gray back. This coloration is the result of their habit of dust-bathing in iron-rich soils, which stains their naturally white feathers to a rust-like color, a feature that becomes more pronounced as they age.

Reaching sexual maturity for these birds is a lengthy process, often taking between 5 to 7 years. Their breeding success, however, typically commences around the age of 8, when they have fully established their territories and found a suitable mate. Bearded Vultures are monogamous, often forming lifelong bonds with their partners. They engage in elaborate courtship rituals, which include high-flying displays and mutual preening.

Nesting sites are usually located on inaccessible rock ledges, where a pair will return year after year. They lay one to two eggs, but typically only one chick survives due to siblicide, where the older chick kills the younger. This is a natural occurrence that ensures the survivor has access to all the resources provided by the parents.

What truly sets the Bearded Vulture apart is its diet, which is primarily composed of bones. It is the only known bird species that almost exclusively feeds on bone marrow. Their highly acidic stomachs can digest large bones within 24 hours, an adaptation that allows them to extract nutrients from remains that other scavengers cannot utilize. To assist in breaking down larger bones, the Bearded Vulture is known for its remarkable behavior of carrying bones into the air and dropping them onto rocks below to shatter them into smaller, digestible pieces.

This bone-eating habit plays a crucial role in the ecosystem, as Bearded Vultures act as the ultimate cleaners, leaving almost nothing to waste. Their ecological niche is vital, as they prevent the spread of disease by consuming the skeletal remains that might otherwise linger in the environment.