Clever hyenas and jackals use vultures to bag an easy dinner

15 Mar 2017

A jackal fights vultures for a meal. Image: Corinne Kendall

Hyenas and jackals have developed a shortcut to an easy meal, simply peering into the skies and following vultures to a guaranteed dinner.

It is tough to survive in the animal kingdom, with death and hunger creeping around every corner. For herbivores who follow the greenery, responding to the rains is a must.

For carnivores, keeping up with those spritely gazelles and wildebeest is only part of the battle. Killing them and eating what’s good before any rivals appear on the horizon completes the challenge.

Watch any nature documentary on Africa and its enigmatic food chain and you will hear of hyenas scavenging, jackals harassing lions at a kill and vultures, in general, casting doom on an area.

But who knew these three were part of a team?

According to a study from biologists at North Carolina Zoo and University College Cork (UCC), the vultures are the unwitting scouts in a constant race to a meal.

When large groups of these iconic birds descend, they present an obvious signal to mammals that a carcass is near. They are, in effect, the eyes in the sky for the mammals.

This is a shrewd behaviour because the view of animals stuck on the ground is often blocked by the lay of the land.

Hyenas Jackals Vultures

Hyenas dining on a giraffe, while vultures, which probably found the carcass and did all the donkey work, watch on. Image: Attila JANDI/Shutterstock

“What we’re seeing is a chain of arrivals at a carcass where the species that arrive early on tend to be the best spotters, whereas those that arrive later tend to be the most physically dominant,” said Dr Adam Kane of UCC.

“This is important because it means the first-comers must eat quickly before they are bullied off their dinner.

“Although both jackals and hyenas are capable hunters, a carcass doesn’t fight back, so the mammals don’t have to work as much as they would for a hunt.

“They have an army of vultures to contend with but a vulture is quite a bit smaller than your average hyena. The birds can’t afford injuries if they are to ever fly again, and so tend to concede their meals to the larger competitors.”

Interestingly, according to the study, the hyenas and jackals monitored never followed eagles, which often work as spotters for vultures. This, they believe, is because eagles often dine on far smaller meals so, should the animals arrive, the carcass could be as small as a snake.

However, there is a problem: vultures are nearing extinction due to all the usual pressures put on animals, coupled with devastating disease in recent years.

Were they to vanish entirely, that would put an additional strain on the mammals relying on their expertise in the skies.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic