Someone once asked me, “So how does a nice girl like you end up studying vultures?” I usually answer such questions by explaining how important vultures are for the environment. In the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem (that spans the Kenya-Tanzania border), vultures actually consume more meat than all the carnivores combined.
Without their scavenging, rotting dead animals (or carcasses) would litter the savanna leading to disease spread and reduced nutrient cycling. In addition, vultures are declining globally at a shocking rate. In Southeast Asia, they lost 99% of the three main vulture species in just fifteen years. In Kenya, vultures have declined by over 50% in the last thirty years.
It’s not that I don’t like the more glamorous, charismatic animals – I always stop to smile at the slow swaying of an elephant or to admire the gorgeous mane of a lion, but usually I’m racing off to watch the boisterous fighting of a flock of vultures.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the underdog species – the ugly, the fierce, the frightening animals that most other researchers turn a cold shoulder towards. I think it started in fourth grade when my teacher brought in an article about naked mole rats.
“Now there’s an animal even Corinne won’t like,” she challenged. After reading about these amazingly social rodents I was hooked. I actually chose my undergraduate college because it was one of only three places in the country were these animals were being studied.
While I didn’t actually end up doing any research on them I was amazed at how ant-like this mammal was. Complete with queen and guards, naked mole rats live underground in small colonies with separate tunnels for a nursery, toilet, and breeding chamber.
As their name suggests, they are naked – shriveled pink skin covering their body with huge teeth protruding the front of their beaddie-eyed faces.
Since then I have gone on to study shrews, tapirs (the strange black long-nosed animals of South America and Asia), and hippos (supposedly the most dangerous animals in Africa, but locally known for their almost drowsy demeanor).
I also spent the last two years at university talking to elementary school children about one of my favorite groups of invertebrates – spiders. What better way to get kids excited about science then to help them feed a tarantula, right? So I guess vultures were a rather natural addition to my motley collection of unusual and unappreciated critters.
Even the unattractive animals can play an important role in their environment and needs an ambassador to ensure their conservation.
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