The Andean Condor is one of the largest vultures. It belongs to the family Cathartidae, or ‘New World’ vultures, that inhabit warm to temperate areas of the Americas. Cathartid vultures are not related to ‘Old World’ vultures in the family Accipitridae. Old World vultures inhabit Europe, Asia and Africa and belong to the same family as eagles, kites and hawks. Surprisingly, cathartid vultures are more closely related to storks.
The two groups are a good example of convergent evolution, where similar features have evolved independently in unrelated groups. Vultures in both families share characteristics that enable them to be superb scavengers. They have sharp-edged, hooked bills to help shred meat (or in the case of Bearded Vultures, Gypaetus barbatus, to crunch bone); bare heads and necks to reduce soiling when feeding in bloody carcasses and to assist with thermoregulation; and large wings for soaring and catching warm air currents, useful for saving energy when searching for food.
While vultures often get a bad rap for being scavengers, they actually perform an essential ecosystem service by disposing of dead and decaying animals. In fact, the name Cathartidae comes from the Greek word for ‘purifier’.
Distribution: Andes, from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego, to sea-level Peru and Chile
Conservation status: Near Threatened
Evolutionary distinctiveness: High