An extreme diet

Pamushana | March 2019

I hope you’ve already eaten.

While watching a pack of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) sleeping near a waterhole in the drizzling rain I noticed a few hooded vultures (Necrosyrtes monachus) skulking about on the ground. Every now and again they would peck at something and eat it, and I wondered what it was since vultures are scavengers, feeding mostly from carcasses of dead animals. You often see them cleaning up the scraps of meat from a kill made by wild dogs. The dogs hadn’t made a kill nearby, and so it was that my binos and big lens revealed they were eating the wild dogs’ faeces!

This is a behaviour known as coprophagy and is somehow far more endearing when done by dung beetles.

Coprophagy by vertebrates is rare, especially among birds. Wild dogs, being carnivores, eat meat and wolf down large chunks of it at a time. Not all the nutrients are digested and some are discharged in the faeces. It is thought that hooded vultures obtain undigested nutrients from consuming the faeces, although they could be obtaining some other rare nutrients as well or instead.

There are some other ‘phagy’ behaviours I looked up too, which include: Anurophagy: eating frogs; Araneophagy: eating spiders; Durophagy: eating hard-shelled or exoskeleton bearing organisms; Geophagy: eating earth; Haematophagy: eating blood; Keratophagy or Ceratophagy: eating horny material, including snakes eating their own skin after shedding; Lepidophagy: eating fish scales; Mucophagy: eating mucus; Myrmecophagy: eating ants and/or termites; Ophiophagy: eating snakes; Osteophagy: eating bones; Saprophagy: eating decaying organic matter; and Xylophagy: eating wood.

What’s even more rare than this photo of a hooded vulture eating faeces is that it also shows the (unimpressed -looking) wild dogs. African wild dogs are listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, but hooded vultures are listed as Critically Endangered!