I have a soft spot in my heart for ugly animals and I love a good underdog story. I’m not saying I would turn up my nose at a basket of golden retriever puppies, but I’ll always prefer a rat with enormous ears and wildly twisted whiskers.
Vultures are a bit harder to love because of their propensity for shoving their heads, neck deep, into the carcass of some dead and rotting animal on the side of the road. Despite this less than endearing habit, however, they are an extremely important part of the planet’s maintenance systems. And all over the world, their failure to be cuddly is having disastrous consequences. In India, several species of vulture have experienced population declines as high as 99.9%, effectively bringing them as close to extinction as possible.
In Africa, vulture populations are undergoing a similarly devastating decline, dying after eating poisoned carcasses or being hunted by poachers who sell their parts to medicine men claiming to be able to use them to create powerful potions. Pesticides, power lines, and poaching have caused a more than 60% decline in the eight endemic vulture species over the last three decades.
One effort to combat this disastrous decimation, or at least temporarily mitigate its effects while solutions can be found to the underlying causes, lies in captive breeding programs. These types of programs, controversial in their own right, work to help maintain a population of animals when their wild counterparts are severely threatened. The difficulty with captive breeding for vultures is that so little is known about their complex incubation process.
To that end, the UK based International Center for Birds of Prey (ICBP) has worked to create a 3D printed egg that looks and feels like an actual vulture egg, but instead of holding a developing vulturelet (actually known as a chick), it contains a variety of sensors designed to gather information about the incubation process. These smart eggs will give researchers insight into the temperature, rotation process, and light exposure, among other traits of vulture egg care through placement with vultures already in captivity.
Here’s the key: efforts to revive falling vulture populations is something that begs for attention outside of a handful of vulture enthusiasts and specifically oriented scientists/researchers. Without vultures to clean up carrion (the polite way of referring to dead critters), feral dog populations quickly expand to fill the gap. This can lead to astronomical increases in diseases, such as rabies, that can spread to humans. In India where the vultures have all but disappeared, 20,000 people die each year from infection with rabies…nearly 40% of total rabies deaths worldwide. If another population doesn’t quickly arise as an alternative on the carcass cleanup crew, the rotting animals remain sites for disease and unsanitary conditions can lead to devastating local impacts, including the spread of plague, anthrax, and botulism.
The Eggduino is an open source project collaboratively developed between Microduino and the ICBP and extending the call to anyone and everyone to help create these data-gathering eggs. In this way, anybody who wants to help can and the technology is open to all those involved in conservation efforts.
The next time you see a crowd of vultures around some bit of unfortunate roadkill (a grouping called a ‘wake’), remember that without them, we’d be up to our armpits in rotten squirrels and putrefying deer. And, once the nausea passes, hopefully they will fill you with a sense of gratitude. What do you think of this idea? Discuss further in the 3D Printed Vulture Eggs forum over at 3DPB.com.