1 Apr 2015

Extended beard of Bearded Vulture - incredible effect of drug revealed

Incredible photo captured of Bearded Vulture with unusually long beard (Ian White)
By Shaun Hurrell

BirdLife International has captured startling new evidence of the impacts of drugs on vulture populations.  In this new development in the vulture-poisoning saga, it is emerging that veterinary drugs are not only lethal to some vultures when ingested, but are also having visible physiological effects to vultures when the drugs build up in the environment.

A number of Bearded Vultures have been seen with unusually long beards. 

“The amazing images clearly show vultures with beards up to three times longer than usual”, said BirdLife’s Dr Lee A Grimmer.

“It is well documented that some chemicals accumulating in ecosystems have been found to feminise species of fish.  We have now found evidence that growing levels of certain drugs in this vulture’s food chain are acting like male growth hormones, extending the facial bristles of Bearded Vultures”, added Dr Grimmer.

One of BirdLife’s Local Conservation Group volunteers, herself an expert on local Bearded Vulture populations, photographed this Bearded Vulture in southern Africa, saying that she first noticed the bird’s beard catching the wind as it soared.

BirdLife International – the world’s largest conservation Partnership - recently announced that vultures have rapidly become one of the most threatened families of birds on the planet. Vultures populations declined by 99% since the 1980s in the Indian Subcontinent due to the use of Veterinary Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used on livestock. Vultures eating the contaminated carcasses of these animals almost-immediately die of kidney failure.

“It is no wonder then that, at low level, these drugs are also causing strange and other non-lethal effects in vultures,” said Dr Grimmer.

Bearded Vulture with normal-length beard for comparison.</br>Photo: Joachim S. Müller

Vultures are affectionately known as ‘nature’s clean-up crew’ from their unique role to clear the landscape of carcasses and stopping the spread of disease. With more vultures dying from poisoning, we could expect a big impact effect on human health too.

Vultures also act as circling sentinels in Africa, but this leads to their downfall: vultures are being poisoned by poachers who do not want them to alert Park Rangers to poached elephant and rhino carcasses.

“Only through monitoring birds such as vultures can we identify changes to not only the birds, but to the wider environment”, concluded Dr Grimmer.

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