Meat-eating vulture bees have evolved special gut bacteria to gorge

Male and female of the Rothschild’s vulture have morphed their digestive tract to digest their prey more easily

Meat-eating vulture bees have evolved special gut bacteria to feast on flesh

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Male and female of the Rothschild’s vulture have evolved special gut bacteria to digest their prey more easily, a study of vulture populations around the world has found.

The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, focused on how the vulture bee evolved as offspring emerged. It found males and females have mutated their gut bacteria, used more of the parathyroid hormone (PTH) and modified their guts to eat meat.

The new genetics allow vulture bees to digest their prey better and faster. Studies have previously shown invertebrates have evolved to be able to digest the dense, thick layer of fat in and around their guts.

The latest research found the vulture bee was easily distinguishable from its wild cousins in those regions where the genetically modified gut bacteria were present. “They are having a major impact on the biodiversity of the wild species in the areas where they are found,” said the study’s author, Lars Allemann.

The vulture bee with both males and females benefiting from their modified gut bacteria. Photograph: Rosy Rulison

With a genetic homogenisation process, the effect was shown in all three areas of the genome.

The findings could also be used to explain how vulture bees were able to act like biopsies when shying away from contact with the male vulture version.

“As a predator they are also choosing to destroy female offspring and so that is also a pretty powerful reason why they would have chosen to do that,” said Allemann.

“[It] could explain how they were able to let all the males mate with all the females and make a video where all the male vultures could be all the females and protect them all together. It really is an amazing feat of evolution and understanding the ecology of the population.”

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