If there were no hyenas or vultures, dead carcasses would simply deteriorate like normal, or be eaten by similar scavenger animals. Both hyenas and vultures are scavengers, in that they typically let a larger predator (like a lion or wolf) catch and kill a prey for food. Once the larger predator has had their fill, they will leave the dead body, and the two scavengers will eat what remains. On occasion, hyenas have been known to attack prey, but mostly rely on their ability to digest even the undesirable parts of an animal, like the vulture. I suppose you could simply think of the two animals as nature’s trash compactors.
These scavengers play an important role in their ecosystems, because as heliosman says, they take care of carcasses that would end up rotting in the sun. Sometimes, there are no other scavengers to fill their niche, and their absence can have a huge impact on the health of both the ecosystem and humans nearby.
Example: Hindu cultures often leave cow carcasses out in the open for vultures to consume. Unfortunately, the drug diclofenac (administered as an anti-inflammatory to both humans and cattle) has caused a 95-98% decline in the vulture population. Vultures were eating carcasses that contained the drug, and the medicine that humans use proved to be deadly for the birds. Without vultures to consume all of the carcasses, dead cows lay out in the hot sun, festering and spreading disease.
Another interesting note: without vultures to perform “sky burials” (the practice of leaving human corpses out to be taken care of by the vultures), people began chopping down more trees for cremations.
Diclofenac is now banned in India, but it is still available in Africa–where there are hyenas!
Kareiva, P. and M. Marvier. 2011. Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature. Roberts and Company: Greenwood Village, CO.
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