Little Known Facts About the Andean Condor

The following are facts about the biology and ecology of the Andean condor. Some facts are expanded on this site, while others are stand-alone aspects of interests. Open up the Content-on-this-page and find one fact that may spark your curiosity and interest.

The Andean condor is the only American vulture that exhibits sexual dimorphism

Male Andean condors are larger than females. In addition, males have a comb, dewlap, and an intricate pattern of folded skin on the head and neck. The female lacks the comb and only has a rudimentary pattern of folded skin visible in older females.

Among Andean condors, size differences indicate segregation of habitat use, behavior, and resource access between sexes.

A study that tracked the daily activities of male and female Andean condors found that sexes forage for food at different times of the day. Bigger males scheduled earlier routines that aligned more closely with updraft wing availability compared to smaller females. 

A smaller female is also able to descend and take off from places where it would be difficult for a larger male with a crop full of food to do so.

Male and female Andean condor in the humid Andes of Colombia. Photo: Cristian Valencia.

The Andean condor makes a variety of calls

Among vultures of the Americas, the Andean condor appears to be able to make the broadest range of sounds.

Male and female make clucking sounds in a staccato rhythm. This series of calls can last for as long as the male displays to a female with his wings spread.

The Andean condor also makes raspy calls and exhalation hisses. A female Andean condor in a captive breeding facility made staccato clucks accompanied by hisses as it protected its nest with an egg.

When adult Andean condors interact with each other in captive breeding facilities, they make the same clucking calls.

Andean condors hold the record for being the birds with the greatest range of altitude

The Andean condor routinely forages at elevations of 11,483 to 16,404 m in the Andes Mountains. Birds can descend to the very shores of the Pacific Ocean in search of carcasses of marine mammals. The altitudinal range of the Andean condor encompasses a range of or approximately 16,404 feet.

Condors are among the birds that take the longest to reach sexual maturity

The Andean condor takes about 8 years to reach sexual maturity and attain the adult’s typical black and white plumage. Some birds may breed before they attain the definitive adult plumage.

Birds with long lifespans usually take a long time to acquire the definitive adult plumage. Acquiring the adult plumage usually means reaching the age of sexual maturity and beginning the breeding activity. The Andean condor and some albatross species are among the birds that take the longest to reach sexual maturity.

The Andean condor is restricted and well adapted to the Andes Mountains 

Andean condor , juvenile male. Photo: Walter Bailiero.

Andean condors have evolved and are perfectly adapted to life in the Andes. In the past, it was entirely dependent on the wild herds of Andean grazers.

When humans colonized the Andes, wild herds of large herbivores were partly domesticated and replaced by domesticated livestock. It is unclear whether the biomass available to the condors has decreased or remained unchanged with the switch of the wild for domestic grazers.

The geographic location of roosting and nesting sites is correlated with the distribution of Andean condors. Condors breed and roost in caves and ledges located on vertical cliffs, to which they return at night after foraging for food.

Andean condors travel a long distance away from their roosting sites, but they only do it within commuting distance to one roosting site. Condors can roost in multiple sites when these are available. But when roosting sites are unavailable within daily commuting distance, Andean condors either underuse or do not utilize areas of potential foraging habitat. 

How long do Andean condors live?

The Andean condor lives very long lives. Data on condor longevity from birds kept in zoos or breeding facilities suggests some of the longest lifespans known to birds. 

As with other birds, Andean condors live longer in captive breeding conditions than in the wild.

  • The oldest known Andean condor died at the age of 79 years at a zoo in Connecticut (Bearsley Zoo). Interestingly, this was a wild trapped bird kept in a zoo. 
  • Other individuals also in captive conditions lived for 65 t0 75 years. 
  • Multiple studies suggest the approximate lifespan of an Andean condor in the wild is 30 to 50 years. However, none provide a basis for such an approximation. 

Andean condors maintain reproductive productivity at old ages. In zoos, male and female Andean condors continue laying eggs and producing young well into their 40 years of age. 

What is the Andean condor’s function in the ecosystem?

Andean condors feed on carrion and play an important role in the ecosystem by helping with the process of biodegradation. Biodegradation is typically carried out by microorganisms but is aided by scavenger animals.  

Biodegradation is the transformation of biological material into products such as water, carbon dioxide, and organic material. In this context, biodegradation can be interpreted as the transformation of potentially harmful biomass into environmentally safe components such as water, carbon dioxide, and organic material.

Andean condors help accelerate the process by reducing the potential for carcasses of sick animals to become vectors of disease. Andean condors consume many dead animals that would otherwise need to be incinerated.

The Andean condor’s cleaning services are essential in places where dead animals would rot and smell for weeks, potentially spreading disease.

The key role of the Andean condor in the scavenger community 

The role of an Andean condor in the scavenger community is to rip open the thick skin of large mammals. Smaller scavengers such as vultures and caracaras would only have limited access to the interior of a dead animal without the Andean condor’s strength to rip open the carcass. 

An Andean condor’s skull shape, beak morphology, and strength enable it to tear, rip, and make holes in key parts of a carcass in order to access internal organs and muscles.

Once the carcass is open, condors consume as much as they can and leave plenty of food for smaller scavengers. 

Among the scavenger bird community in the Americas, Andean condors are defined as rippers, the turkey, and yellow-headed vultures as scrapers, and the black vulture as gulpers.

A young Andean condor takes eight years to attain the adult plumage

When a juvenile Andean condor leaves the nests in the smoky brown juvenile plumage, it will take up to 8 years to attain its adult black and white plumage.

Young Andean condors undergo a continuous molt that gradually replaces their smoky-brown plumage with darker shades of brown. The head and facial caruncle and folded skin also became more prominent, and sex differences are more obvious. 

Other taxonomically related vultures, such as the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), also go through a long molting process to attain the adult plumage. However, changes are not as noticeable because the juvenile plumage is similar to the adult plumage and males and females look alike without the sex-specific features of the Andean condor. 

The Andean condor has an unresolved genealogy

Besides other vultures in the Americas, what birds are close relatives of the Andean condor is unknown.

First of all, the Andean condor and vultures of the Old World (Africa, Asia, and Europe) are unrelated. 

Andean condors share morphological and behavioral traits with falcons and storks. Some of these traits are faint and somewhat obscure, suggesting that Andean condors, storks, and falcons split from some common ancestor many years ago.

More recent molecular studies using advanced techniques have only opened more questions than provided answers. We know for certain that the Andean condor is a close relative of the smaller black-plumaged vultures of the Americas, the king vulture, and the California condor.

The scientific name for the Andean condor, was first given to the king vulture

The king vulture was first described by taxonomist Carl Linneus (1758) and given the name “Vultur gryphus”, which is the current Andean condor’s scientific name.

Subsequently, the king vulture’s name was revised to “Vultur papa.”

Linnaeus then described the Andean condor and assumed that the Andean condor belonged in the same genus as the king vulture naming the Andean condor Vultur gryphus. 

The Andean condor’s basic biology is poorly known

Andean condor, adult female.

Despite its cultural significance, appearance, and huge range encompassing the entire length of South America, facts about the Andean condor’s basic biology and demography are poorly known. 

Most of what we know about the Andean condor comes from birds kept in zoos, and a handful of local censuses and nests in the wild observed from a distance. Andean condors occur in low numbers and nest in inaccessible caves and ledges, usually away from roosting sites.  

Demographic information such as the number of adults and juveniles in the various populations, birth rates, productivity, survival rates, mortality, and lifespan in the wild are largely unknown. This information would help understand the status and threats to the species and whether any conservation actions need to be taken.

To find food, the Andean condor flies high and monitors other scavengers

To find food, the Andean condors fly higher than smaller scavengers and monitor their activities in a wide area. Andean condors see the smaller scavengers below from a vantage point to determine whether they fly in a certain direction or congregate at a particular spot. The smaller scavenger’s activities provide clues to the condor when they have likely discovered a carcass. 

The Andean condor flies in the direction where other scavengers are going, or if it sees scavengers congregated, it approaches the location from a high altitude. Regardless of when the Andean condor arrives, it gets access to the carcass first.

To cool off, Andean condors defecate on their own legs

An Andean condor deliberately defecates on its own legs from time to time, making them whitish. Ornithologists suggest two possible reasons for this:  

To keep cool, Andean condors poop on their legs in order to release heat when temperatures get high. 

In order to transform from a liquid to a gaseous state, water molecules must first absorb heat energy. As the viscous liquid poop evaporates and dries, it absorbs heat from the bird’s legs. 

Alternatively, the Andean condor may also use its own poop as an antiseptic. The digestive juices in their stomach kill harmful bacteria. The condor’s poop also contains traces of the digestive juices; hence poop acts as an antibacterial. By defecating on their legs, Andean condors keep their legs clean from bacteria they collect from walking on rotten carcasses. 

References:

  • Tracking data and retrospective diet analyses reveal the consequences of loss of marine subsidies for an obligate scavenger, the Andean condor. 2018, Sergio A. Lambertucci, Joan Navarro, José A. Sanchez Zapata, Keith A. Hobson, Pablo A. E. Alarcón, Guillermo Wiemeyer, Guillermo Blanco, Fernando Hiraldo and José A. Donázar See fewer authors. Published: Proceeding of the Royal Society: May 30, 2018