Vultures the Next Wave in Criminal Investigation?

The name Sherlock is taking on a whole new meaning. Now a household name in Germany, the rest of the world is just getting introduced. Normally native to North and South America, Sherlock the turkey vulture can be found in Walsrode bird park in northern Germany, the largest bird reserve in the world. But unlike the other residents, this raptor has very important job to do.

The goal is to make this tame vulture into a missing persons detective. Using the bird’s natural instincts, Sherlock may be the first of his kind in the world to sniff out human bodies for the police force. A GPS device attached to his leg can track his movements and hopefully lead investigators to the scene of the crime more effectively than dogs. Officer Rainer Herman reports the plan came from “a colleague of mine [who] got the idea from watching a nature program.”

Trainer German Alonso is teaching the 5 year old bird to associate the smell of decomposing human flesh with delicious reward. Sherlock is presented with small bowls of meat next to a cloth previously used to cover a corpse at a mortuary. Visitors at the park can see him perform this trick as his trainer tries to ready him for more ambitious tasks.

The advantage of vultures over dogs is the sheer distance a 6-foot wing span can cover “as the crow flies.” Unlike most raptors who rely only on keen eyesight to hunt, vultures possess an adept sense of smell, enabling them to detect animal remains from 3000 ft high. In difficult terrain like dense woodland, often a prime location for dumping bodies, the bird’s flight becomes quite the time saver. The same area would quickly tire out terrestrial-bound dogs, who need recurrent breaks from the search to recoup.

The results have yet to be seen and several hurdles stand in the way of ultimate success. Vultures search for food in groups, so one trained bird isn’t enough. Last year two chicks called Miss Marple and Columbo were obtained from a breeder in Austria, and now join Sherlock in training. But the birds are stubborn, and Alonso reports “They fight with each other like crazy and Sherlock prefers searching on foot to flying.”

Not to mention the worry that the vultures will revert to their natural behavior and peck at the bodies they find, something Alonso hopes to overcome as well.

Even without these challenges, sniffing dog detectives won’t be out of a job anytime soon. The Pentagon announced last year that dogs are still 30% more effective at detecting explosives than even the most innovative bomb seeking technology developed, and they’re a lot cheaper too. Turkey vultures are rare to find in captivity, and need to be tame in order to work with, so even if Alonso and his trio are successful, it will likely be a slow trend to spread. Nevertheless, there is interest from nearby countries to this new and potentially effective crime resource.

Interesting Turkey Vulture Facts:

The often described “ugly” bald head of the turkey vulture serves a very important hygienic purpose. Eating from the carcass of large animals often requires the bird to delve its head deep inside. Meat would inevitably get stuck in feathers and serve as a breeding ground for the bacteria that comes along with it. A bald head is simply cleanlier.

Another hygienic oddity is the vulture’s tendency to urinate on its own legs. The high acid content of the urine sterilizes their legs and feet, often soiled with bacteria from the carcass the bird was standing in. Urine will also cool the bird as it evaporates, a relief for hot climate dwellers.

The legend of vultures “projectile vomiting” is only partially true. Projectile is an over-exaggeration, but a vulture will regurgitate when threatened or agitated, and in the wild a vulture is most vulnerable while feeding on carrion. Being gorging animals, vomiting is thought to be a quick way to lessen its weight, making a quick flight an easier method of escape.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/mikebaird/2350646337/

Dinosaur Footprints at Risk of Demolition

Along the coast of western Australia, a region called the Kimberley is home to 50 continuous miles of fossilized dinosaur tracks made 130 million years ago. Some prints are a colossal 5 feet long, created by the great Sauropods, huge quadrupedal plant-eaters to which Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus belong, and the largest land animals to have ever walked the Earth.

In 1994 reports of the tracks were so spectacular that accounts of them were thought to be embellished and were left unstudied for some time. Once examined, the “Broome Dinosaur Highway” was found to have representatives from at least 15 different species including carnivorous, herbivorous, and possibly armored dinosaurs like Stegosaurus. Aside from a few bone fragments, this is the only indication of dinosaurs found in western Australia, and some species are unprecedented in the entire country. But the fate of this so far unbroken stretch of irreplaceable historic evidence is in jeopardy.

The Kimberley is a remote and sparsely populated region and has only recently been recognized for its scientific and economic possibilities. Gas giants Shell, BP, and Woodside Energy of Perth hope to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing plant in the Browse Basin at James Price Point, a coastal zone at the northern end of the dinosaur track line. The commercialization of these offshore natural gas sources would feed a multi-billion dollar export deal made with China.

Construction of this plant would mean certain destruction for some of the prints, but scientists are further concerned that indirect consequences could endanger a much larger section of coastline. The proposed jetties and sand dredging involved in building the gas hub is likely to cause shifting sands along the coast and could obscure several more miles of the dinosaur prints, many of which are already only accessible at low tide. The research value of the tracks doesn’t come from just independent impressions, but from the study of the collection as a whole, possibly providing answers to long time questions regarding dinosaur social behavior and travel.

Prominent paleontologists have been pleading for the preservation of the area due to its unmatched scientific significance. Dr. Tony Thulborn of the University of Queensland sent a petition with the names of over 80 scientists from 16 countries protesting the project to the state government. Dr. Steve Salisbury, also of the University of Queensland, has expressed his apprehension through various media outlets. On the Public Radio International show The World, he described the site as “phenomenal in terms of the sort of information we get out of it for understanding dinosaur movements.”

The fossilized footprints have been getting a lot of press, and because of their fame the Browse Basin plant has become the poster child of industrialization that covets the entire Kimberley region. So while evidence of extinct animals are under some threat, what of the living ones of this millennium?

Conservationists from multiple organizations are concerned with the processing plant’s effects on both the terrestrial and marine environments. According to Environs Kimberley, construction would destroy over 5500 acres of land, likely including several hundred acres of rare rainforest-like habitat called Monsoon Vine Thickets.

Also at critical risk is the endemic Flatback turtle along with 5 other endangered turtle species found in the vicinity. Fear for the disturbance of manatee, Humpback whale, and Snubfin dolphin (only just recognized as unique to Australia) whose migratory patterns are not well known have organizations demanding caution and further study.

Without an established knowledge base like those on the eastern side of the continent (now containing protected areas like the Great Barrier Reef), environmentalists claim there isn’t enough groundwork yet to make educated decisions about industrial opportunities.

As for the people who make the Kimberly their home, opinions have been divided. On May 6th, after much deliberation and negotiation, Aborigine landowners voted in favor of a deal with the state government allowing the project to go through. The government had already begun obtaining the rights by compulsory acquisition, creating some bitterness with much of the population, and splinter groups are still determined to continue the fight against development.

The final jurisdiction lies with Australian Environmental Minister Tony Burke. At his authority, several large sections of the Kimberley region including James Price Point are being considered for classification as a National Heritage Site. This may not be enough to prevent the LNG plant however. Heritage listing only requires that potentially irreparable damage to heritage value be taken into account before industry approval. Burke may deem the plant’s high economic value to outweigh negligible disturbance to the environment.

A decision was originally expected late last year, but Burke postponed it in order to further assess the situation and consider public feedback. By June 30th the world will see what is to become of western Australia’s scientific relics and pristine ecosystems.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/gregw66/4056320716/