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This Bird is the Highest Flier in the World. Guess How We Found That Out.

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This is the Rüppell’s griffon vulture. It perches on cliffs in Africa, and has to travel a hundred miles at a time to get food. It manages this by going to high altitudes, which led some very unlikely people to make a scientific discovery.


This vulture doesn’t have too many extraordinary features on the outside. It does have backwards-facing barbs on its tongue, which allows it to stick its head inside a carcass and strip away meat and sinew. But it’s really impressive feature is inside. The hemoglobin in its blood is modified to have a very high affinity for oxygen, allowing it to rip oxygen from the atmosphere as easily as it rips meat from carrion. A ready supply of oxygen allows the vulture to fly higher than any other bird.


Its flight altitude is clearly a competitive adaptation, but at least once that adaptation has worked out very badly for the bird. Two airline pilots became unlikely biologists in 1973, when they discovered a bird flying at 37,000 feet. This discovery came by way of the bird getting sucked into one of their engines. The engine lost function and the plane had to make an emergency landing, but it landed safely. The bird didn’t come out of the incident quite as well. It was identified by way of five complete and fifteen partial feathers left in the engine.


Since then, the Rüppell’s griffon vulture has caused very little trouble for airlines. Sadly this is because their numbers are shrinking as they lose food and territory to humans. There is a scare every once in a while. The vulture is native to Africa, but Scottish pilots were put on the alert in 2010 when a female vulture who liked to fly at around 30,000 feet got loose during a bird show.

Top Image: Zedammer. Second Image: Rob Schoenmaker