Vultures and other animals eat their own babies. But a group of vulture bees in the South American city of Sao Luis have developed two genetic adaptations that make them all-purpose carnivores. Each bee has a special, special gut bacteria that they can use to prepare themselves for digestion on the meat they find on the winged carcasses of local pigs. In research published last year in Frontiers in Zoology, lead researcher Igor Pavlikov, from the Humboldt University of Berlin, and his colleagues described how the bees were taking advantage of a gene called Canili02B, which has previously been found in other vulture and bat species, to attract a pig’s comb and prepare themselves for the gut that awaited the preserved, half-sunken remains. The pig’s branched comb, a thick, dark membrane that is eaten by any fly, can be “fully extracted” when eaten by bees. Speaking to the Latin American newspaper Veja, Pavlikov said: “We have found that when a vulture flies over carcasses, it uses the air force.” Canili02B allows vultures to go onto the carcass for as long as it takes to ingest the necessary number of pig parts. “Pigs’ meat can be collected just by combining lipids [seeds and fat] with particles of ice. That sort of method works with pigs and vultures because the density of body weight of preserved pig remains is very high,” Pavlikov said. “The tool that vultures use is an enzyme, a sweet-seeking sugar.” He added: “Bees must be able to extract more lipids from the meat. So we thought that their gut bacteria might help them.” However, rather than using Canili02B as a shortcut, the bees have adapted another variant of the same gene. We wish them well.
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