- King Vulture
name = King Vulture
status = LC
status_system = iucn3.1
image_width = 250px
phylum = Chordata
classis = Aves
ordo = "
Incertae sedis" (disputed)
familia = Cathartidae
genus = "Sarcoramphus"
genus_authority = Duméril, 1805
species = "S. papa"
binomial = "Sarcoramphus papa"
binomial_authority = (Linnaeus, 1758)
range_map_width = 250px
range_map_caption =Approximate range/distribution map of the King Vulture; orange indicates presence
synonyms ="Vultur papa"
The King Vulture, "Sarcoramphus papa", is a large Central and
South American birdin the New World vulturefamily Cathartidae. This vulture lives predominantly in tropical lowland forests stretching from southern Mexicoto northern Argentina, though some believe that William Bartram's Bartram's "Painted Vulture"">Painted Vulture of Floridamay be of this species. It is the only surviving member of the genus "Sarcoramphus", though fossil members are known.
It is large and predominantly white, with gray to black ruff, flight, and tail
feathers. Its head and neck are bald, with the skin color varying, including yellow, orange, blue, purple, and red. The King Vulture has a very noticeable yellow fleshy caruncle on its beak. This vulture is a scavenger and it often makes the initial cut into a fresh carcass. It also displaces smaller New World Vulture species from a carcass. King Vultures have been known to live for up to 30 years in captivity.
King Vultures were popular figures in the
Mayan codicesas well as in local folklore and medicine. Though currently listed as Least Concern by the IUCN, they are declining in number, due primarily to habitat loss.
Taxonomy and systematics
The King Vulture was originally described by
Carl Linnaeusin 1758 in the tenth edition of his " Systema Naturae" as "Vultur papa". [la icon cite book | last=Linnaeus | first=C | authorlink=Carolus Linnaeus | title=Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. | publisher=Holmiae. (Laurentii Salvii). | year=1758| pages=86|quote= V. naribus carunculatis, vertice colloque denudate|] It was reassigned to the genus "Sarcoramphus" in 1805 by André Marie Constant Duméril. The generic name is Latinizedfrom the Greek words σαρκο ("sarko", "flesh") and ῥαμφος ("rhampos", "crooked beak of bird of prey") [ cite book|last=Liddell| first=Henry George|coauthor=Robert Scott|year=1980|title=Greek-English Lexicon, Abridged Edition |publisher=Oxford University Press|location= Oxford|isbn= 0-19-910207-4] . The genus name is often misspelled as "Sarcorhamphus", improperly retaining the Greek rough breathingdespite agglutinationwith the previous word-element. The bird was also assigned to the genus "Gyparchus" by Constantin Wilhelm Lambert Glogerin 1841, but this classification is not used in modern literature since "Sarcoramphus" has priority as the earlier name. [cite web| last = Peterson| first = Alan P. | title = Richmond Index – GENERA Aaptus - Zygodactylus | work = The Richmond Index| publisher = Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History| date = 2007-12-23| url = http://www.zoonomen.net/cit/RI/Genera/RIGenAZ.html| accessdate =2008-01-17 ] The King Vulture's closest living relative is the Andean Condor, "Vultur gryphus".Citation| last = Amadon| first = Dean| title = Notes on the Taxonomy of Vultures| journal = Condor| volume = 79 | issue =4| pages = 413–416| year = 1977 | url =http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Condor/files/issues/v079n04/p0413-p0416.pdf ] Some authors have even put these species in a separate subfamily from the other New World Vultures, though most authors consider this subdivision unnecessary.
There are two theories on how the King Vulture earned the "King" part of its common name. The first is that the name is a reference to its habit of displacing smaller vultures from a carcass and eating its fill while they wait.cite web | title = King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa)| author=Grosset, Arthur | publisher = | url = http://www.arthurgrosset.com/sabirds/king%20vulture.html| accessdate = 2007-09-11] An alternative theory reports that the name is derived from Mayan legends, in which the bird was a king who served as a messenger between humans and the gods.cite web | title =King Vulture | author= | publisher = National Geographic | url = http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/king-vulture.html | accessdate = 2007-09-11] This bird is also known as the "White Crow" by the Spanish in
Paraguay. cite book | last = Wood| first =John George | title =The illustrated natural history | publisher =Oxford University| year= 1862| url =http://books.google.com/books?id=BEwDAAAAQAAJ&printsec=titlepage&dq=King+Vulture]
systematicplacement of the King Vulture and the remaining six species of New World Vultures remains unclear. Though both are similar in appearance and have similar ecological roles, the New World and Old World Vulturesevolved from different ancestors in different parts of the world. Just how different the two are is currently under debate, with some earlier authorities suggesting that the New World vultures are more closely related to storks. [Sibley, Charles G. and Burt L. Monroe. 1990. " [http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0300049692 Distribution and Taxonomy of the Birds of the World] ". Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-04969-2. Accessed 2007-04-11.] More recent authorities maintain their overall position in the order Falconiformesalong with the Old World Vultures [Sibley, Charles G., and Jon E. Ahlquist. 1991. " [http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0300040857 Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution] ". Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-04085-7. Accessed 2007-04-11.] or place them in their own order, Cathartiformes. [Ericson, Per G. P.; Anderson, Cajsa L.; Britton, Tom; Elżanowski, Andrzej; Johansson, Ulf S.; Kallersjö, Mari; Ohlson, Jan I.; Parsons, Thomas J.; Zuccon, Dario & Mayr, Gerald (2006): Diversification of Neoaves: integration of molecular sequence data and fossils. " Biology Letters" online: 1-5. DOI|10.1098/rsbl.2006.0523 [http://www.systbot.uu.se/staff/c_anderson/pdf/neoaves.pdf PDF preprint] [http://royalsociety.metapress.com/media/public/contributionsupplementalmaterials/0/5/8/3/058352377848735w/archive1.pdf Electronic Supplementary Material] (PDF)] The South American Classification Committeehas removed the New World Vultures from Ciconiiformesand instead placed them in " Incertae sedis", but notes that a move to Falconiformes or Cathartiformes is possible.Remsen, J. V., Jr.; C. D. Cadena; A. Jaramillo; M. Nores; J. F. Pacheco; M. B. Robbins; T. S. Schulenberg; F. G. Stiles; D. F. Stotz & K. J. Zimmer. 2007. [http://www.museum.lsu.edu/~Remsen/SACCBaseline.html "A classification of the bird species of South America."] South American Classification Committee. Retrieved on 2007-10-15]
Fossil record and evolution
The genus "Sarcoramphus", which today contains only the King Vulture, had a wider distribution in the past. The Kern Vulture, "Sarcoramphus kernense" lived in southwestern
North Americaduring the mid- Pliocene( Piacenzian), some 3.5-2.5 million years ago). It was a little-known component of the Blancan/ Delmontian faunal stages. The only material is a broken distal humerus fossil, found at Pozo Creek, Kern County, California. As per Loye H. Miller's original description, " [c] ompared with ["S. papa"] the type conforms in general form and curvature except for its greater size and robustness."Miller, Loye H. (1931): Bird Remains from the Kern River Pliocene of California. "Condor" 33(2): 70–72. [http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Condor/files/issues/v033n02/p0070-p0072.pdf PDF fulltext] ] The large span in time between the existence of the two species suggests that the Kern Vulture might be distinct, but as the fossil is somewhat damaged and rather non-diagnostic, even assignment to this genus is not completely certain. [Fisher, Harvey L. (1944): The skulls of the Cathartid vultures. "Condor" 46: 272–296. [http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Condor/files/issues/v046n06/p0272-p0296.pdf PDF fulltext] ]
Late Pleistocene, another species probably assignable to the genus, "Sarcoramphus fisheri", occurred in Peru. This would have been the chronospeciesancestral to the present-day King Vulture, or possibly a sister species. Few avianspecies of today evolved after that time, and of those that did most are small, short-lived Passeriformes.
A supposed King Vulture relative from
Quaternarycave deposits on Cubaturned out to be bones of the eagle-sized hawk" Buteogallus borrasi" (formerly in "Titanohierax"). [Suárez, William (2001): A Re-evaluation of Some Fossils Identified as Vultures (Aves: Vulturidae) from Quaternary Cave Deposits of Cuba. "Caribb. J. Sci." 37(1–2): 110–111. [http://www.uprm.edu/publications/cjs/Vol37a/37_110-111.pdf PDF fulltext] ]
Little can be said of the
evolutionary history of the genus, mainly because remains of other NeogeneNew World vultures are usually younger or even more fragmentary. The teratorns held sway over the ecological nicheof the extant group especially in North America. The Kern Vulture seems to slightly precede the main bout of the Great American Interchange, and it is notable that the living diversity of New World vultures seems to have originated out of Central America. The Kern Vulture would then seem to represent a northwards divergence possibly sister to the "S. fisheri - S. papa" lineage. Be that as it may, the fossil record, though scant, supports the theory that the ancestral King Vultures and South American Condors separated at least some 5 mya.
Bartram's "Painted Vulture"
There has been much speculation about the "Painted Vulture" ("Sarcoramphus sacra"" or "S. papa sacra"")Verify source|date=November 2007, a bird described in
William Bartram's notes of his travels in Floridaduring the 1770s. The notes were considerably altered and expanded in the printed edition, possibly by an editor who had seen images of the King Vulture and believed the bird briefly and equivocally described by Bartram to be a King Vulture and therefore fleshed out the details as he saw fit.
Several researchers have attempted to prove the former existence of a King Vulture relative in Florida at this late date, suggesting that the population was in the process of
extinction and finally disappeared during a cold spell.Day, David (1981): "The Doomsday Book of Animals": Ebury, London/Viking, New York. ISBN 0-670-27987-0] However, Bartram saw his "Painted Vulture" in the area from which the Northern Crested Caracara was later described. This bird was common and conspicuous in Bartram's days, but it is conspicuously missing from Bartram's notes if the "Painted Vulture" is accepted as a "Sarcoramphus".
While the original notes are somewhat ambiguous regarding the appearance of the bird, the description does fit that of a caracara. The birds' behavior, as recorded by Bartram, is in complete agreement with the caracara's. For example, Bartram observed the birds following
wildfires to scavenge for burned insects and box turtles. Such behavior is typical of caracaras, but the larger and shorter-legged King Vultures are not well adapted for walking. However, the fact that Bartram cannot have missed the caracara but does not mention it is the most convincing piece of evidence against the theory that this bird was a King Vulture subspecies or relative.Verify source|date=November 2007
The adult King Vulture is the most strikingly colored of the New World Vultures.cite web | title =King Vulture | author= | publisher = Honolulu Zoo| url = http://www.honoluluzoo.org/king_vulture.htm | accessdate = 2007-09-11] It is predominantly white, though its ruff, flight, and tail feathers range from gray to an opalescent black.cite web | title = Sarcoramphus papa | author=Ormiston, D. | publisher = Animal Diversity Web | url = http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sarcoramphus_papa.html| accessdate = 2007-09-11] The white plumage also has a slight rose-yellow tinge to it.Citation| last =Howell| first = Steve N.G.| last2 = Webb| first2 = Sophie| title = A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America| place= New York| publisher = Oxford University Press| year = 1995|pages = 176|isbn = 0-19-854012-4 ] It has a thick, strong bill that, whilst the most powerful among the New World Vultures, is quite small compared to that of other large birds of prey. This bill has a hooked tip and a sharp cutting edge. The bird has broad wings and a short, broad, and square tail. Its eyes are straw-colored and it has keen eyesight. Unlike some New World Vultures, the King Vulture lacks eyelashes.Citation| last = Fisher| first = Harvey I.| title = The Pterylosis of the King Vulture| journal = Condor| volume = 45 | issue = 2| pages = 69–73| date= March| year = 1943| url = http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Condor/files/issues/v045n02/p0069-p0073.pdf] The King Vulture also has a highly noticeable yellow fleshy crest on its orange and black bill; this caruncle does not fully form until the bird’s fourth year. cite book | last = Gurney| first =John Henry | title =A descriptive catalogue of the raptorial birds in the Norfolk and Norwich museum| publisher =Oxford University| year= 1864| url =http://books.google.com/books?id=REwDAAAAQAAJ&dq=A+descriptive+catalogue+of+the+raptorial+King+Vulture&output=html] It also has gray legs and long, thick claws. The vulture is minimally sexually dimorphic, with no difference in plumage and little in size between males and females.cite web | title = King Vulture-Sarcorhamphus papa| author=Channing, Keith| publisher = The Hawk Conservancy| url = http://www.hawk-conservancy.org/priors/kingvult.shtml| accessdate = 2007-09-20] The juvenile vulture has a dark bill and eyes, and a downy, gray neck that soon begins to turn the orange of an adult. Younger vultures are a slate gray overall, and, while they look similar to the adult by the third year, they do not completely molt into adult plumage until they are approximately five or six years of age.
The vulture’s head and neck are featherless as an adaptation for hygiene, though there are black bristles on parts of the head; this lack of feathers prevents
bacteriafrom the carrionit eats from ruining its feathers and exposes the skin to the sterilizing effects of the sun.cite web | title =Sarcoramphus papa | author= | publisher =Who Zoo | url = http://whozoo.org/Anlife99/scottmen/newvulture.htm | accessdate = 2007-09-11] The skin on the neck and head can be many colors, including yellow, orange, blue, purple, and red.cite book| last =Terres| first =J. K.| authorlink =John Kenneth Terres| title =The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds| publisher =Knopf| year= 1980| location =New York, NY| pages = 959| isbn = 0394466519 ] The bird's skin is also wrinkled near the ear and back of the neck.
Excluding the two species of
condors, the King Vulture is the largest of the New World Vultures. Its overall length ranges from 67–80 centimeters (27–32 in) and its wingspan averages 1.2–1.98 meters (4–6.5 ft). Its weight ranges from 2.7–4.5 kilograms (6–10 lb).
Distribution and habitat
The King Vulture inhabits an estimated 14 million square kilometers between southern
Mexicoand northern Argentina.cite web | title = Species factsheet: Sarcoramphus papa | author= | publisher =BirdLife International | url = http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=3823&m=0 | accessdate = 2007-09-11] In South America, it does not live west of the Andes, except in western Ecuador, [cite book | last = Ridgely|first = Robert|last2 = Greenfield| first2 = Paul| title = Birds of Ecuador: Field Guide| pages = 74| year = 2001| publisher = Cornell University Press|location= |isbn=0-8014-8721-8] north-western Colombiaand far north-western Venezuela. [cite book | last = Restall| first = Robin| last2 = Rodner| first2 = Clemencia| last3 = Lentino| first3 = Miguel| title = Birds of Northern South America: An Identification Guide. Vol. 2| pages = 68| year = 2006| publisher = Christopher Helm |location= | isbn=0-7136-72-43-9] It primarily inhabits undisturbed tropical lowland forests as well as savannas and grasslands with these forests nearby. [cite book |last=Brown |first=Leslie |title=Birds of Prey: Their biology and ecology |pages=59|year=1976 |publisher=Hamlyn |location= |isbn=0-600-31306-9] It is often seen near swamps or marshy places in the forests. This bird is often the most numerous or only vulture present in primary lowland forests in its range, but in the Amazon rainforestit is typically outnumbered by the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, while typically outnumbered by the Lesser Yellow-headed, Turkey and American Black Vulturein more open habitats. [cite book | last = Restall| first = Robin| last2 = Rodner| first2 = Clemencia| last3 = Lentino| first3 = Miguel| title=Birds of Northern South America: An Identification Guide. Vol. 1 | pages=80–83 | year=2006 | publisher= Christopher Helm | location= | isbn=0-7136-7242-0] King Vultures generally do not live above 1200 meters (4000 ft).cite web | title =King Vulture | author= | publisher = Belize Zoo | url = http://www.belizezoo.org/zoo/zoo/birds/vul/vul1.html | accessdate = 2007-09-11] They inhabit the emergent forest level, or above the canopy.
Ecology and behavior
The King Vulture feeds solely on carrion and, unlike some New World Vultures, is not known to kill sick or dying animals for food. It often eats stranded
fishalong river banks, but does not come to village refuse dumps for food. Though it has keen eyesight which can help it locate food, there are two theories regarding how it specifically finds carrion. Some argue that it uses its sense of smell to find animal carcasses. Others argue that it does not have a sense of smell, and instead follows the smaller Turkey Vultures and Using its bill to tear, it makes the initial cut in a fresh carcass. This allows the smaller, weaker-beaked vultures, which can not open the hide of a carcass, access to the carcass after the King Vulture has fed. The vulture’s tongue is rasp-like, which allows it to pull flesh off of the carcass’s bones. Generally, it only eats the skin and harder parts of the tissue of its meal.
An adult King Vulture sexually matures when it is about four or five years old. The birds mainly breed during the dry season. The vultures give an elaborate courting display in which the pair circle each other on the ground while flapping their wings and making loud wheezing noises and snorting sounds while mating. King Vultures mate for life and generally lay a single unmarked white egg in its nest in a hollow in a tree. To ward off potential predators, the vultures keep their nests foul-smelling. Both parents incubate the egg for the 32 to 38 days before it hatches. If the egg is lost, it will often be replaced after about six weeks. Young are
altricial, or helpless at birth. The chick is born featherless, but quickly gains some black down feathers. The chicks do not molt into their white adult plumage until they reach five or six years of age. When they are first born, the chicks are fed with meat brought to them directly from their parents’ claws, but eventually they are fed by regurgitation.
This bird is a species of Least Concern to the
IUCN, with an estimated range of 14,000,000 square kilometers (5,405,430 sq mi) and between 10,000 and 100,000 wild individuals. However, there is evidence that suggests a decline in population, though it is not significant enough to cause it to be listed. This decline is due primarily to habitat destructionand poaching.
Relationship with humans
The King Vulture is one of the most common species of birds represented in the
Mayan codices. cite book | last = Tozzer| first =Alfred Marston | coauthors =Glover Morrill Allen| title =Animal Figures in the Maya Codices
publisher =Harvard University| year= 1910| url =http://books.google.com/books?id=l4h4vTjnAUUC&dq=King+Vulture++Maya&output=html] Its
glyphis easily distinguishable by the knob on the bird’s beak and by the concentric circles that make up the bird’s eyes. Sometimes the bird is portrayed as a god with a human body and a bird head. According to Mayan mythology, this god often carried messages between humans and the other gods. It is also used to represent Cozcaquauhtli, the thirteenth day of the month in the Mayan calendar.
Rural South Americans believed that if the shadow of a King Vulture fell on a person, that person would suffer misfortune or death. The bird’s blood and feathers were also used to cure diseases. The King Vulture is also a popular subject on the stamps of the countries within its range. It appeared on a stamp for
El Salvadorin 1963, Belizein 1978, Guatemalain 1979, Hondurasin 1997, Boliviain 1998, and Nicaraguain 1999.cite web | title =King Vulture | author= | publisher =Bird Stamps | url = http://www.bird-stamps.org/cspecies/2800700.htm | accessdate = 2007-10-17]
Because of its large size and beauty, the King Vulture is an attraction at several zoos, including the
Honolulu Zoo, Belize Zoo, and Zoologischer Garten Berlin. It breeds well in captivity, but the captive vultures have a tendency to kill their hatchlings. This habit has not been observed in the wild. Determining the sex of a newborn bird in captivity is difficult due to the large amount of "baby fat" present in the first six months and the lack of gonadal development in the bird's first year. The King Vulture is one of the few bird species with an AZA studbook, which as of 2007 is kept by Brian Tierney of the Bronx Zoo.Citation| title = Vulture, King Studbook | year = 2007| url = http://www.aza.org/Cands/index.cfm?page=Studbook_detail&Studbook_id=1026 | accessdate = 2007-10-08 ]
* [http://ibc.hbw.com/ibc/phtml/especie.phtml?idEspecie=567 King Vulture videos] on the Internet Bird Collection
* [http://www.bird-stamps.org/cspecies/2800700.htm Stamps] (for
Belize, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua) with RangeMap
* [http://vireo.acnatsci.org/search.html?Form=Search&SEARCHBY=Common&KEYWORDS=king+vulture&showwhat=images&AGE=All&SEX=All&ACT=All&Search=Search&VIEW=All&ORIENTATION=All&RESULTS=24 King Vulture photo gallery] VIREO (6 photos) [http://vireo.acnatsci.org/species_image.php?species=Sarcoramphus+papa Photo-High Res]
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