U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version



Published by OIKOS 102: 225–234. 2003.


Carrion use by terrestrial vertebrates is much more prevalent than conventional theory implies, and, rather than a curiosity of animal behavior, is a key ecological process that must be accounted for. Human aversion to rotted substances and difficulties associated with identifying scavenged material in studies of food habits have contributed to the relative lack of information concerning scavenging behavior in vertebrates. Several lines of evidence, however, suggest that carrion resources are more extensively used by vertebrates than has been widely assumed: 1) a substantial number of animals die from causes other than predation and become available to scavengers, 2) a wide variety of vertebrate scavengers, rather than microbes or arthropods, consume most available carcasses, and 3) intense competition exists between vertebrate scavengers and decomposers, especially in warm climates. Although vultures are best adapted to use carrion, nearly all vertebrate predators are also scavengers to some extent. The costs and benefits associated with carrion use influences the evolution of scavenging behavior in vertebrates, resulting in a continuum of facultative scavengers that use carrion to varying degrees. The realized usage of carrion by a vertebrate species is influenced by the speed and efficiency with which it forages, its visual and olfactory abilities, and its capacity for detoxifying products of decomposition. A deeper understanding of carrion use by facultative scavengers will improve our knowledge of community and ecosystem processes, especially the flow of energy through food webs.