Everyone knows dragons aren’t real. Any scientist will tell you that tales of giant flying beasts wreaking havoc from the sky is a total made up myth for little babies, and also it’s not true.
But today, I’m going to let you in on a little secret:
Scientists can be liars sometimes.
Welcome to an all-new episode of Weird Biology and today, you are going to learn about a real-life dragon.
FIRE AND BLOOD! FIRE AND BLOOD! FIRE AND BLOOD!
Even though it looks like a creature straight out of medieval myth, the Bearded Vulture is (allegedly) a bird! Also called the Lämmergeier or Ossifrage (both metal as heck but difficult to pronounce), the Bearded Vulture can be found in mountain ranges across Europe and Asia.
But before we get much further, I need to give you a proper sense of scale. Bearded Vultures have wingspans of up to nine feet, weigh up to 17 pounds and can be almost four feet tall. That’s right, this thing is at eye-level to a third grader. (Like 8-year-olds don’t have enough problems already. Jeeze.)
And not only are they stupid huge, they’re they’re also smart. Like, crows are smart, right? Imagine a four foot tall crow with knives for feet, the face of a velociraptor and a sheer delight in anarchy. That’s the Bearded Vulture.
Bearded Vultures have complex social structures and advanced personal relations, but their intelligence shines best in the way they hunt. Yes, hunt. Most vultures on the planet will only deign to eat things that have already died on their own, but the Bearded Vulture will sometimes… cut out the middleman. So to speak.
(And then they eat him.)
Unlike other birds of prey, Bearded Vultures don’t rely on their claws to get a meal. Instead, they have adopted a much more efficient and game-breaking method. Imagine you’re hiking alone through the mountains when suddenly YIKES a feathery dragon swoops out of nowhere and knocks you right off a cliff to your tragic and untimely death. It sounds like something from a Game of Thrones episode, but this regularly happens to tortoises, goats, and and in one really strange instance, a monitor lizard. (Sometimes they also do this by straight up yoinking a helpless victim several hundred feet into the sky, and then letting go.)
After the prey has met its doom via physics engine abuse, the Bearded Vulture swoops down for a meal and is promptly sued by George R. R. Martin for copyright violation.
(Ha ha! This was a joke! A funny joke! PLEASE DO NOT SUE ME, MR. MARTIN.)
Seriously though, one of the most interesting and alarming aspects of the Bearded Vulture (out of many, so many) is their diet. Once they have either found or “helped make” a carcass, they get down to business: they eat the bones, and only the bones. (That’s probably the most metal fact I’ve ever listed about a bird and I have listed a LOT of bird facts.)
It’s right there in the name, “Ossifrage”, which means “bone-breaker”. (And that’s the SECOND most metal fact I’ve ever listed about a bird.) Bearded Vultures are the only bird whose diet is almost exclusively bones. Like, we’re talking 85%-90% here. It’s a very high number.
They swallow smaller bones whole, and crack the larger ones open by abusing physics again and flinging them off cliffs. It’s worth all that effort for the sweet sweet bone marrow hidden inside. And it probably means they never have to worry about calcium deficiencies, either. But most importantly, it means that Bearded Vultures have little to no direct competition! This cool bone-eating trick means that they’re the only predators in the area even interested in the stupid things. Every other scavenger only wants the soft parts, meager fools that they are.
The only thing that a Bearded Vulture really needs to worry about is other Bearded Vultures. (And humans, but more on that later.) To ward other vultures off, they rub red dirt into their feathers and perform elaborate threat displays. The deeper and more visceral the red, the higher-status the vulture. You can experience this effect yourself! Simply dunk yourself in stage blood and then board your nearest public transportation device. The best seat is instantly yours, provided that nobody else is bloodier than you. But getting back on topic, all of this ridiculous dragon bullshit comes with a price.
In the middle ages, Europeans were convinced that Bearded Vultures would: a) eat their sheep, and b) carry off and eat small children. (They were right about the sheep thing, to be fair.) But because of these beliefs, frightened parents hunted down and slaughtered Bearded Vultures wherever they found them. And it turns out even an avian dragon is no match for projectile weapons. The Bearded Vulture population in the Alps was completely wiped out by the 18th century, because nothing motivates multiple generations of a human population like “THIS THING WILL EAT MY CHILDREN”.
But there is good news! Bearded Vultures are much more appreciated these days, and they have been successfully reintroduced to the Alps. They’re still going strong in the Himalayas, and also Ethiopia.
Let’s hope these real-world dragons stick around and terrorize future generations of humans with their blood red feathers and horrific table manners.