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Beautifully Ugly King Vulture - A face only a mama could love. | by Axel.Foley
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Beautifully Ugly King Vulture - A face only a mama could love.

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The King Vulture, Sarcoramphus papa, is a large Central and South American bird in the New World vulture family Cathartidae. This vulture lives predominantly in tropical lowland forests stretching from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, though some believe that William Bartram's Painted Vulture of Florida may be of this species. It is the only surviving member of the genus Sarcoramphus, though fossil members are known.

 

It is large and predominantly white, with gray to black ruff, flight, and tail feathers. Its head and neck are bald, with the skin color varying, including yellow, orange, blue, purple, and red. The King Vulture has a very noticeable yellow fleshy caruncle on its beak. This vulture is a scavenger and it often makes the initial cut into a fresh carcass. It also displaces smaller New World Vulture species from a carcass. King Vultures have been known to live for up to 30 years in captivity.

 

King Vultures were popular figures in the Mayan codices as well as in local folklore and medicine. Though currently listed as Least Concern by the IUCN, they are declining in number, due primarily to habitat loss

 

The King Vulture was originally described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae as Vultur papa. It was reassigned to the genus Sarcoramphus in 1805 by André Marie Constant Duméril. This genus is often misspelled as Sarcorhamphus. The generic name is derived from the Greek words sarco-/σαρκο- "flesh" and ramphos/ραμφος "crooked beak of bird of prey. The bird was also assigned to the genus Gyparchus by Constantin Wilhelm Lambert Gloger in 1841, but this classification is not used in modern literature since Sarcoramphus has priority as the earlier name.The King Vulture's closest living relative is the Andean Condor, Vultur gryphus. Some authors have even put these species in a separate subfamily from the other New World Vultures, though most authors consider this subdivision unnecessary.

 

There are two theories on how the King Vulture earned the "King" part of its common name. The first is that the name is a reference to its habit of displacing smaller vultures from a carcass and eating its fill while they wait. An alternative theory reports that the name is derived from Mayan legends, in which the bird was a king who served as a messenger between humans and the gods. This bird is also known as the "White Crow" by the Spanish in Paraguay.

The exact systematic placement of the King Vulture and the remaining six species of New World Vultures remains unclear. Though both are similar in appearance and have similar ecological roles, the New World and Old World Vultures evolved from different ancestors in different parts of the world. Just how different the two are is currently under debate, with some earlier authorities suggesting that the New World vultures are more closely related to storks. More recent authorities maintain their overall position in the order Falconiformes along with the Old World Vultures or place them in their own order, Cathartiformes. The South American Classification Committee has removed the New World Vultures from Ciconiiformes and instead placed them in Incertae sedis, but notes that a move to Falconiformes or Cathartiformes is possible.

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Taken on September 23, 2009