Feeding on leftovers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am

Nature's cleaners

Carnivores spend hours hunting other animals for food. Hunting isn't easy. Hunters have to look for their prey, sneak up on it, and then attack.

When victims fight back, hunters can get hurt. Deer fight off tigers by kicking them with their hooves. Birds can hurt a snake's eyes and soft skin with their beaks.

Hunting also takes a lot of energy. Hunters have to make sure they catch their food most of the time. If they don't, they become weak. If they become too weak to hunt, they die!

Some carnivores don't waste energy hunting. They let other animals hunt and look for leftovers. Carnivores that eat corpses are called scavengers.

Famous scavengers are vultures, Komodo dragons and burying beetles. Other animals like hyenas, raccoons, great white sharks and lions sometimes eat corpses, too.

Although it sounds disgusting, scavengers do a very useful job. They help break down animal remains. Scavengers eat big chunks and leave smaller chunks for smaller creatures like flies and ants.

If you were an animal, would you hunt or scavenge or both?

True or false?

1. Hunting is difficult and dangerous.

2. Scavengers are animals that eat corpses.

3. Scavengers help break down animal remains.

Spotted hyenas: scavengers of Africa

Fill in the gaps with the following words:

queen, steal, prey

In the past everyone thought spotted hyenas were scavengers. Wildlife films showed lions eating - and hyenas waiting for leftovers. But today we know hyenas are very good hunters. The problem is lions often _______________ their catch!

Spotted hyenas live in woods and grasslands in Africa. They live in big groups called clans. The leader is always a female. She's called the _______________ of the clan.

Spotted hyena clans hunt antelope, buffalo and zebras. These hunts can be very tough. Hyenas sometimes chase their prey for 5km.

When hyenas catch their _______________, they eat the whole animal. Hyenas have a very strong digestive system. They eat meat, skin, brains and even bones and hooves.

Although hyenas hunt, they are also scavengers. So if a lion leaves leftovers, hyenas are happy to eat it up!

American burying beetles: nature's undertakers

Find three words that mean 'dead body'.

Burying beetles (also called Sexton beetles) live in North America and Europe. They are called burying beetles because they use corpses to feed their babies.

As these insects are only 3cm long, they prefer small carrion like dead pigeons, mice, and rats. When they find a cadaver, they pull off all the fur and feathers.

The beetles make special juices that stop the corpse from rotting too quickly. They cover the body with these juices, roll it into a ball, and bury it.

The female beetle lays eggs next to the carcass. When the eggs hatch, the baby beetles eat the body. The mother and father beetles live there, too, and help feed and protect their babies.

Scavengers in Hong Kong

Most local scavengers are very small creatures like ants, cockroaches and termites. But we do have some bigger animals that love to eat corpses.

The Eurasian black vulture sometimes appears on our shores in the winter. Look out for this endangered bird in Mai Po.

Sparrow hawks catch starlings and sparrows in mid-air. But sometimes they also eat carrion. Look out for Japanese sparrow hawks in Chek Lap Kok and Mai Po. Eurasian sparrow hawks visit Lin Barn Tsuen and Ma Wan.

Much more common birds that eat carrion are crows, ravens, magpies and gulls. Look for jungle crows in forests, fields and towns. Look for gulls on beaches and near the sea. You can check out scavengers really easily by going to a rubbish dump and seeing what animals are pulling apart garbage bags with food inside.

Vultures: birds of death

Link the italicised words to the correct antonyms, words that mean the opposite of:

low, weak, healthy

Vultures live everywhere except for Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica.

These birds are scavengers. They fly high in the sky, looking for carcasses.

Some vultures can smell rotting flesh from several kilometres away. Other vultures can see flies gathering on a corpse from several kilometres away.

Vultures have very strong digestive systems. They can eat rotting meat without getting sick. They can eat anthrax and cholera bacteria without getting sick! But vultures can be poisoned.

Farmers in India and Pakistan give sick farm animals painkillers. When the farm animals die, vultures are killed by those medicines. In the past 10 years, 95 per cent of vultures in India and Pakistan have died.

Animals that eat dead plants are called detritivores (pronounced DEH-tri-tih-vores). These include millipedes, worms, and fiddler crabs

fab fact!
In African myths, hyenas are magical animals that can speak. In stories, hyenas lure victims away from their homes by calling to them

fab fact!
In places where vultures are dying out, conservationists set up special areas where birds can come and eat dead animals free from poison. There are Vulture Restaurants in Nepal, South Africa and the US

now do this

Try to answer the following questions without referring to the text

1 Scavengers are ...

a. carnivores that eat corpses

b. birds that eat rubbish

c. hooved animals that eat grass

2 Spotted hyenas live in ...

a. America

b. Africa

c. Asia

3 Spotted hyenas are led by ...

a. a female hyena or queen

b. a male hyena or king

c. the oldest hyena

4 American burying beetles use corpses to ...

a. live inside

b. to keep warm

c. feed their babies

5 Vultures die from eating farm animals ...

a. that are too rotten

b. that are too fresh

c. that have taken medicine

6 What common scavenger lives in Hong Kong?

a. Komodo dragon

b. crow

c. vulture

Look online for more about scavengers

Producers, Consumers and Decomposers
Learn why scavengers are doing a great job ? and test your
knowledge with a game.

The Hyena Pages
Learn about the private lives of hyenas and read some African
hyena folktales.

Vultures of the World
Lots of pictures and quick facts about these useful birds.

Learn more about Hyenas in Bonecrushers on Nat Geo Wild
on March 22 at 9pm and Hyena Queen on March 29 at 9pm


True or False: All true

Fill in the gaps: steal, queen, prey Words meaning 'dead body': corpse, cadaver, carcass

Antonyms: high, strong, sick

Quiz: 1. a, 2. b, 3. a, 4. c, 5. c, 6. b