Anatomical evidence for scent guided foraging in the turkey vulture

The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is a widespread, scavenging species in the Western Hemisphere that locates carrion by smell. Scent guided foraging is associated with an expansion of the olfactory bulbs of the brain in vertebrates, but no such neuroanatomical data exists for vultures. We provide the first measurements of turkey vulture brains, including the size of their olfactory bulbs and numbers of mitral cells, which provide the primary output of the olfactory bulbs. Comparative analyses show that the turkey vulture has olfactory bulbs that are 4?larger and contain twice as many mitral cells as those of the sympatric black vulture (Coragyps atratus), despite having brains that are 20% smaller. The turkey vulture has the largest olfactory bulbs in absolute terms and adjusted for brain size among birds, but the number of mitral cells is proportional to the size of their olfactory bulbs. The combination of large olfactory bulbs, high mitral cell counts and a greatly enlarged nasal cavity likely reflects a highly sensitive olfactory system. We suggest that this sensitive sense of smell allowed the turkey vulture to colonize biomes that are suboptimal for scavenging birds and become the most widespread vulture species in the world.