Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post
Red deer – not always strictly vegetarian
Originally uploaded onto YouTube on 16 May 2010, but currently going viral again, is a short wildlife video by Linda Ford from the USA that films in her own front yard the macabre scene of a subadult buck deer casually picking up a young bird off the ground with its teeth, chewing the helpless creature in its jaws, and then swallowing it, while the two parent birds flap desperately but impotently in the devouring deer’s face. Click here to watch Linda’s astonishing but genuine video on YouTube.
A bird-eating deer? Incredible – impossible, surely? – yet perfectly true. Nor is it a unique case. Back in 1997, I included a section on sinister, unexpected carnivores of the hoofed – and normally strictly herbivorous, vegetarian – variety in my book From Flying Toads To SnakesWith Wings. Here is what I wrote:
The Inner Hebrides are a group of islands situated off the western coast of Scotland. One of their southernmost members, Rhum, is home to more than 300 red deer Cervus elaphus. On small islands like this, the vegetation is often deficient in minerals – minerals that are required by large herbivorous animals. Faced with this situation, deer normally resort to chewing their own shed antlers, or even old bones, in order to obtain the missing substances, including calcium and phosphorus. But on an island like Rhum, which is also home to large colonies of ground-nesting seabirds, there is a much more sinister method available to the deer for sustaining a balanced diet.
Quite simply, they decapitate the chicks of the seabirds, particularly those of an albatross-related species known as the Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus – and thence obtain from the chicks’ bones the minerals that they lack in their normal vegetarian diet.
Manx shearwater (left) plus sooty shearwater (right)
The researcher responsible for exposing this dark and previously unrealized secret in the history of Britain‘s largest and most noble species of native wild mammal is biologist Dr Robert Furness, from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. However, his deer disclosures, first formally documented in the Journal of Zoology (March 1988), were only the beginning. When he visited another group of Scottish islands, the Shetlands, he uncovered an even more amazing example of carnivores of the cryptic kind.
During the 1990s, Furness has been studying a herd of primitive sheep on the small Shetland island of Foula, the most westerly member of this group. These animals are direct descendants of sheep introduced here long ago by the Vikings, and in order to obtain adequate supplies of minerals – notably phosphorus – present in insufficient quantities within Foula’s sparse vegetation, the sheep have evolved a merciless modus operandi that closely parallels the grisly dietary deviation exhibited by the red deer of Rhum. The Arctic tern Sterna paradisaea is an abundant seabird nesting on Foula – and the sheep prey upon their fledglings. Unlike the deer, however, they rarely amputate the heads of the young birds. Instead, they prefer to bite off their victims’ wings and legs, often leaving the helpless fledglings still alive but lethally crippled. The sheep then procure the required minerals by chewing the bones in the birds’ severed limbs.
As is so often true when investigating cases of anomalous animal behaviour, it transpired that the crofters who live on Foula have always known that this island’s sheep were bird killers, but until the first-hand observations and studies by Furness vindicated them, their claims had been dismissed by science as nothing more than quaint folklore.
Arctic tern fledgling
Since I wrote the above account, many additional cases of what appears to be opportunistic but quite possibly natural (albeit hitherto little-realised) carnivorous behaviour among typically herbivorous mammalian species have been documented and formally confirmed – including white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus in North America eating songbirds and small mammals snared in mist nets, various domestic cows in India eating live chickens, a goose-eating rhinoceros, and even a rabbit-devouring deer (check YouTube for several videos featuring some such examples). But perhaps the most gruesome case of a flesh-eating herbivore ever recorded featured a captive elephant that killed and ate a human! And yes, I did document this grotesque event in my book:
Rather more mundane incidents, involving cattle and even hippopotamuses eating the bones of dead brethren to boost their dietary intake of minerals, have also been recorded over the years – but nothing, surely, can compare with the astounding, yet fully verified case of World War II’s woman-eating elephant.
This dramatic episode was revealed by internationally renowned zoovet Dr David Taylor. During the final years of World War II, Germany was suffering from severe food shortages, and its zoo animals could not always be given the balanced diets that they had customarily received in peacetime. However, a male elephant in Berlin Zoo apparently succeeded in solving its mineral deficiency problems, albeit in a singularly horrific manner.
A lady called Bertha Walt, who worked at an office near to the zoo, made a habit of spending her lunchtime in the zoo and feeding the remains of her sandwiches to this elephant. One day, she learned upon her arrival at the elephant’s enclosure that he was unwell. Saddened by her pachyderm friend’s illness, Walt unhesitatingly volunteered to stay with him overnight, in order to nurse him and to provide reassuring company for him.
Given permission to do this, she duly spent the evening inside the elephant’s enclosure – but when the animal’s keeper arrived the next morning to take over, his unbelieving eyes registered a terrible sight. Walt was still there – or, to be more precise, parts of her were still there. The rest of her had been devoured by the elephant!
All of which assuredly gives a whole new depth of meaning to the popular old saying “All flesh is grass”
UPDATE – 19 February 2014
After reading my post today, retired zookeeper-manager David Pepper-Edwards informed me of a truly remarkable giraffe that displayed the decidedly grisly habit of stamping on sparrows and then eating them – not the kind of behaviour that one would normally associate with these typically gentle – and herbivorous – giants. Here are more details of this fascinating case, kindly made available to me by David for inclusion here – thanks, David!
“I am now a retired Zookeeper/Manager. Used to work at Auckland Zoo New Zealand and at Taronga Park Zoo Sydney, Australia. The giraffe in question was a male named “John” at Auckland Zoo during the 1960/70s. The sparrows would fly in and eat the seed in the oaten hay used as bedding in his night house. He would actually sort of stalk them (first you have to imagine a giraffe trying to stalk!) and then with a quick stamp he would flatten them with one of his fore hooves. Then eat them. He was quite good at it. The sparrows on the other hand never caught onto it.”
Clearly, the phenomenon of carnivorous vegetarians in the ungulate world is more widespread than one might initially assume!