Vultur gryphusAndean condor

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Geographic Range

Andean condors (Vultur gryphus) inhabit most of western South America in the mountains and deserts ranging from western Venezuela south to Tierra del Fuego. Andean condors can be found in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. The wild population was thought to be extirpated from Venezuela but is very rarely still seen there. In an isolated network of mountain peaks in the Andes of Columbia and Ecuador, the population is thought to be in decline. Populations reach much higher densities in the regions south of the Northern Peruvian Low, were they inhabit vast areas of highland prairie, desert, and coastal regions. (Hendrickson, et al., 2003; Rios-Uzeda and Wallace, 2007)

Habitat

Andean condors inhabit mountain and coastal mountain habitat types in the Andean mountains of South America. They have been located at elevations of up to 5,500 m. They prefer areas with wide open spaces which aid in their detection of food. Andean condors roost and nest on cliff faces in small rock ledges or caves. They use the thermals that rise and spiral off of these cliff faces to soar for hours with very little effort, scanning for carrion. (Lambertucci, et al., 2009; Rios-Uzeda and Wallace, 2007)

  • Other Habitat Features
  • caves
  • Range elevation
    0 to 5,500 m
    0.00 to ft

Physical Description

Andean condors have dark feathers in maturity (while juveniles are olive-grey and brown), with a white collar or downy plumage around the base of their necks. They also have white flight feathers on their wings as adults, with those of the male being more pronounced. When extended, the wing tips have gaps between the primaries which is an adaptation for soaring. The head and neck of adult condors are bare of feathers and are generally black to dark reddish brown, while juveniles have much darker skin and young hatchlings have fluffy grey down on their bodies. This baldness is presumably a hygienic adaptation, as the bare skin is easier to keep clean and dry after feeding on carrion. The beak is hooked at the end and functions in tearing rotting meat off a corpse. The bases of their upper and lower mandibles are dark with the rest of the beak being ivory colored. Andean condors weigh between 7.7 and 15 kg and range from 97.5 to 128 cm in length. Their wingspan of 3.2 m is the longest wingspan of any land bird.

Andean condors are the only species in the family Cathartidae that exhibit drastic sexual dimorphism. Unlike many other birds of prey, male Andean condors are considerably larger than the females. Also, males have a large caruncle (comb) and wattle which females lack. Sexes differ in eye color as well, with males having brown irises and females having red. Both sexes have the ability to change the color of the bare skin on their neck and face in association with mood. This is used for communication between individuals and males also use this for displays during mating season.

The feet of Andean condors are much less powerful with shorter blunted talons compared to those of other birds of prey. This adaption is well suited for a lifestyle of walking and scavenging. The hind toe is less developed, but the middle toe is much longer that the other toes. Their feet and legs are covered in circular scales that are dark grey in color. (Lambertucci and Mastrantuoni, 2008)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • ornamentation
  • Range mass
    7.7 to 15 kg
    16.96 to 33.04 lb
  • Average mass
    10.8 kg
    23.79 lb
  • Range length
    97.5 to 128 cm
    38.39 to 50.39 in
  • Average wingspan
    3.2 m
    10.50 ft

Reproduction

A pair of Andean condors may select a nest site and then roost in (or near) it for as much as two and a half months before mating actually begins. As the pair mate and the time draws near to the female laying their egg, they will gradually begin to roost closer and closer to the nest ledge until they are finally roosting overnight inside it.

The mating behavior of Andean condors differs between accounts in zoo settings and the limited observations of wild birds. Accounts of wild birds have been made at great distances without clear views or description of the display or copulatory behavior. The male display can begin with pre-display behavior that includes the male rubbing his head and neck against a tree or post. Also the male has been described to present the female with small twigs and straws that they both lodge in their wing feathers, immediately followed by the object falling to the ground. These behaviors were not observed in all cases, and no definite explanation was offered. It is loosely hypothesized that the stick behavior may be remnant of when the species ancestors were nest builders but no formal studies have been conducted.

In general the male begins to display by spreading his wings and inflating his neck. His neck and wattle, which are normally a dull pinkish-grey color, flush a bright sulfur yellow. He approaches the female with his wings spread and his neck outstretched and arched with his bill pointing down. The male makes small turns to the left and right as he waddles toward the female who also may spread her wings and mimic his movements. The male hisses as he approaches the female, who may reply with low moaning sounds during copulation. The pair may nibble at each other for several minutes and click their bills together. Nibbling can continue during and after copulation.

Courtship and mating seem to be intricately tied to the males role as a dominant partner and the females submissiveness to him, which may account for the variation in observed behaviors from pair to pair, if each pair has a different balance of dominance in the relationship. (Gailey and Bolwig, 1973; Lambertucci and Mastrantuoni, 2008; Whitston and Whitston, 1969)

The mating season of Andean condors varies geographically, but is generally from February through June. They are non-migratory so seasonal extremes are very different in the northern and southern extents of their range. Breeding interval is also likely variable depending on the quality of their habitat and the availability of food.

Observations of breeding in Andean condors have been documented in great detail in only a few instances. This makes generalizing their behavior difficult due to variation between observations.

Most Andean condors do not construct a nest and will lay a single egg on the bare, cliff ledge. Some condors will collect a few sticks to scatter around the ledge. Eggs are bluish-white in color, weigh about 280 g, and are 7.6 to 10.1 cm in length. The single egg is incubated for 54 to 58 days, after which an altricial, downy chick hatches. Chicks are tended by both parents until they fledge at 6 to 7 months old. Fledglings remain with their parents until 2 years old, or when pairs breed again. Juveniles do not reach sexual maturity until 6 to 11 years of age. (Lambertucci and Mastrantuoni, 2008)

  • Breeding interval
    Andean condors breed every 2 to 3 years and may be more frequent if food resources are high.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding season is between February and June in Peru, and between October and
  • Average eggs per season
    1
  • Range time to hatching
    2 to 3 months
  • Range fledging age
    6 to 7 months
  • Range time to independence
    2 to 3 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 to 11 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    6 to 11 years

Both sexes participate in incubation of the eggs and feeding the young. The sexes alternate incubation, with one of the pair always at the nest for the first 1 to 2 months. The parents continue alternating time at the nest for an additional month but gradually spent more time off the nest, but near the nest site. Males may forcibly displace females from the egg to take over incubation. Males have also been observed frequently chasing the females out of the nest before and after hatching. Males also feed the young more often than the females do. Parents tend the young well after they fledge at 6 to 7 months of age. Juveniles remain with the parents for an average of 2 years, or until parents breed again. (Lambertucci and Mastrantuoni, 2008)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents
  • extended period of juvenile learning

Lifespan/Longevity

Andean condors are long lived birds that mature slowly. Their true maximum lifespan in the wild is unknown but is estimated at around 50 years.

In January of 2010 a wild-born, captive condor died at nearly 80 years old at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport Connecticut.

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    80 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    50 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    75 (high) years

Behavior

Andean condors are monogamous and are thought to mate for life. They are active during the day and spend most of their time soaring. Both adults and juveniles are known to roost communally on ledges and shelves to rest, but not to breed as other vultures do. Large numbers (196) of condors have been observed at communal roosts in Patagonia, Argentina. Use of roost sites increases during the summer and autumn. The social interactions at roost sites show a dominance hierarchy with males dominating over females and adults dominating over juveniles. This dominance behavior led to segregation of roost sites with dominant individuals preferentially occupying certain roosts with optimal sun exposure and wind protection.

Like many vultures, Andean condors also exhibit the cooling mechanism of urohydrosis. Lower body temperatures are achieved through evaporation after excreting on their own legs. Their legs are thus often stained white with uric acid. (Donázar and Feijoo, 2002; Lambertucci, et al., 2008; Wallace and Temple, 1987a)

  • Range territory size
    1 (high) km^2

Home Range

Andean condors travel as much as 200 miles per day at extremely high altitude in search for food. The nesting territory was described as being 1 kilometer surrounding the nest and this area was defended vigorously from other condors as well as potential nest predators. Andean condors are not described as especially territorial except when it comes to defending their nest. (Fisher, 1942; Lambertucci and Mastrantuoni, 2008)

Communication and Perception

Andean condors rely on their sense of sight to detect and locate carrion from thousands of feet in the air. They also may use visual cues from smaller vultures, which use smell to locate food.

Both sexes have the ability to change the color of the bare skin on their neck and face in association with mood. This is used for communication between individuals and males also use this for displays during mating season. Males use face and neck flushing (yellow) as part of their visual courtship displays. Andean condors also use clicking and hissing for communication but they lack a syrinx which is needed to produce more complicated bird calls.

Like all birds, Andean condors perceive their environments through visual, auditory, tactile and chemical stimuli. (Wallace and Temple, 1987a; Whitston and Whitston, 1969)

Food Habits

Andean condors may form mutualistic relationships with smaller turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which forage by smell whereas Andean condors forages by sight. Larger Andean condors are much better adapted at tearing into the tough hide of a fresh kill. The smaller vultures benefit from the labors of the condor and feed on what is left of the newly opened carcass. Within the last century or so there has been an ecological shift in food availability across much of the Andean condors' range as native megafauna species (Llamas, alpacas, rheas, guanacos, and armadillos) are widely being displaced by domesticated animals (cows, horses, sheep, and goats) as well as those introduced for sport hunting (rabbits, foxes, wild boars, and red deer). Andean condors also eat carcasses of whales and other large marine mammals in coastal regions.

Andean condors are primarily scavengers but have been observed to do some hunting of marmots, birds and rabbits. Andean condors lack well developed hunting techniques but may chase and grab at live prey, in which case they begin feeding before the animal is dead. Andean condors hold prey by standing on it, as they lack the strong grasping feet found in most hunting raptors.

When approaching a fresh carcass, Andean condors often start opening the animal near the anus and progress toward the head. One of the first things eaten is usually the liver, followed by the muscle. No significant attempt to open the skulls and eat the brain has been observed.

In the northern reaches of their range, where Andean condors are in sharp population decline, food availability is a problem. One study suggested that this lack of food may increase the condors tendency to forage on road kill which presents a threat of being hit by a passing car. (Gailey and Bolwig, 1973; Lambertucci, et al., 2009; Speziale, et al., 2008; Wallace and Temple, 1987a)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • carrion

Predation

Healthy adult condors have no known natural predators. Young chicks may fall victim to large birds of prey or to foxes if the nest is accessible to flightless predators. Eggs may also be lost to predation.

Andean condors nest on high, inaccessible cliff ledges where available but sometimes nest in areas that are more accessible by land. They are known to aggressively display and actively defend the nest site from potential predators, including zoo keepers. (Lambertucci and Mastrantuoni, 2008; Whitston and Whitston, 1969)

  • Known Predators
    • Foxes (Vulpes)
    • Birds of Prey

Ecosystem Roles

Andean condors are some of the largest and most successful avian scavengers on the planet and they serve an important role in the consumption of carrion to help prevent the spread of disease in an ecosystem.

Smaller vultures may have a mutualistic relationship with large Andean condors where the smaller birds locate carrion and provide passive visual cues to the high soaring Andean condors that food is nearby. The larger, more powerful condors usually arrive last to the group and opens up the carcass. This provides the smaller vultures with access to areas that were too tough to exploit on their own. The arrival of Andean condors was observed to cause visible "excitement" among the smaller vultures. Condors' activity of opening up a carcass has been observed to start a "feeding frenzy" among smaller scavengers, in which all normal dominance hierarchies are temporarily ignored. (Wallace and Temple, 1987a)

Mutualist Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Andean condors have been extremely important as a cultural symbol in the Andes mountains of south America for thousands of years. In the ancient Inca culture of Peru the condor represents one of the three realms of existence, the heavens; while the Jaguar represents the earth and the snake the underworld. These three cultural references appear all over Inca society, including in their architecture. The site of Machu Picchu, which was a royal vacation home, is built in the shape of a condor if viewed from the top of a nearby mountain. There is also a massive stone altar in the site that is shaped like a huge condor with wings spread high.

Andean condors also serve essential roles for humans as important carrion feeders that help limit the spread of disease.

Andean condors are one of the world’s largest flying birds and thus their survival in the native habitat is important for ecotourism in South America. Andean condors are also often found in zoos, being a popular animal to exhibit due to their status. They were also an important learning resource for zookeepers to gain experience with the challenges of captive breeding large condors that was essential to the conservation of critically endangered California condors. (Brown and Mitchell, 2000; Wallace and Temple, 1987b; Whitston and Whitston, 1969)

  • Positive Impacts
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Andean condors tend to feed on large dead animals and occasionally will hunt sick and injured megafauna. Much of the local megafauna in the Andean highlands has been ecologically replaced by domesticated range species such as lamas, cows, horses, sheep, and goats which now constitute a large part of condors' diets. This has led some farmers and ranchers to see them as pest species that harass their livestock. Poisoning was not uncommon over the last hundred years but is now becoming less common due to an increase in public awareness and appreciation of Andean condors as symbols of the region. (Lambertucci and Mastrantuoni, 2008)

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Andean condors are listed as 'Near Threatened' on the IUCN Red List as they have faced significant population declines in recent years. Threats to Andean condors include habitat loss, lead ammunition ingestion, and persecution by farmers. Even after captive breeding and reintroduction programs, the slow reproduction rate (once every 2 to 3 years) of these birds is slowing population recovery.

Past conservation concerns had to do with the use of lead ammunition for hunting, because condors' digestive systems are harsh enough to absorb large quantities of the lead if ingested from scavenged gunshot kills. There has been much effort to end the use of lead ammunition within the range of Andean condors, but concern still exists.

The ecological replacement of many of Andean condors' native food sources by domestic animals may have unforeseen long term effects on their survival. (Lambertucci, et al., 2009)

Contributors

Travis Kidd (author), Northern Michigan University, Alec Lindsay (editor), Northern Michigan University, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.

Glossary

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

biodegradation

helps break down and decompose dead plants and/or animals

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

colonial

used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

scavenger

an animal that mainly eats dead animals

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Brown, J., N. Mitchell. 2000. Culture and Nature in the Protection of Andean Landscapes. Mountain Research and Development, 20/3: 212-217. Accessed January 11, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3674268.

Donázar, J., J. Feijoo. 2002. Social Structure of Andean Condor Roosts: Influence of Sex, Age and Season. The Condor, 104/4: 832-837. Accessed January 18, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1370705.

Donázar, J., A. Travaini, O. Ceballos, A. Rodríguez, M. Delibes, F. Hiraldo. 1999. Effects of Sex-Associated Competitive Asymmetries on Foraging Group Structure and Despotic Distribution in Andean Condors. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 45/1: 55-65. Accessed January 18, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/4601576.

Fisher, H. 1942. The Pterylosis of the Andean Condor. The Condor, 44/1: 30-32. Accessed January 11, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1364195.

Gailey, J., N. Bolwig. 1973. Observations on the Behavior of the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). The Condor, 75/1: 60-68. Accessed January 11, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1366535.

Hendrickson, S., R. Bleiweiss, J. Matheus, L. de Matheus, N. Jácome, E. Pavez. 2003. Low Genetic Variability in the Geographically Widespread Andean Condor. The Condor, 105/1: 1-12. Accessed January 11, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1370600.

Lambertucci, S., A. Trejo, S. Di Martino, J. Sanchez-Zapata, J. Donazar, F. Hiraldo. 2009. Spatial and temporal patterns in the diet of the Andean condor: ecological replacement of native fauna by exotic species. Animal Conservation, 12: 338-345.

Lambertucci, S., N. Jacome, A. Trejo. 2008. Use of communal roosts by Andean Condors in northwest Patagonia, Argentina. Journal of Field Ornithology, 79/2: 138-146.

Lambertucci, S., O. Mastrantuoni. 2008. Breeding behavior of a pair of free-living Andean Condors. Journal of Field Ornithology, 79/2: 147-151.

Rios-Uzeda, B., R. Wallace. 2007. Estimating the size of the Andean Condor population in the Apolobamba Mountains of Bolivia. Journal of Field Ornithology, 78/2: 170-175.

Speziale, K., S. Lambertucci, O. Olssonb. 2008. Disturbance from roads negatively affects Andean condor habitat use. Biological Conservation, 141: 1765-1772. Accessed January 18, 2010 at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=MImg&_imagekey=B6V5X-4SR0819-1-F&_cdi=5798&_user=972151&_orig=search&_coverDate=07%2F31%2F2008&_sk=998589992&view=c&wchp=dGLbVlW-zSkWz&md5=844277a4f2cdebb4d0bb9c1e811134d7&ie=/sdarticle.pdf.

Wallace, M., S. Temple. 1987. Competitive Interactions within and between Species in a Guild of Avian Scavengers. The Auk, 104/2: 290-295. Accessed April 30, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/4087035.

Wallace, M., S. Temple. 1987. Releasing Captive-Reared Andean Condors to the Wild. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 51/3: 541-550. Accessed January 18, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3801266.

Whitston, M., P. Whitston. 1969. Breeding Behavior of the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). The Condor, 71/1: 73-75. Accessed January 11, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1366056.