The Highest Flying Bird In The World Is A Type Of?
Who hasn’t, at some point, wished to fly through the sky with the grace and ease of a bird. When we think of flying like a bird we think of swooping above buildings, or perhaps even touching the clouds, but to fly above the clouds? That seems a wee bit high for our feathered friends.
Yet, not only do more than a few bird species climb above the clouds, one particular species climbs to astounding heights. The Rüppell’s vulture, or Gyps rueppellii, is a large and endangered vulture found throughout the Sahel region of central Africa that has a particular knack for climbing right up into the upper troposphere.
The typical cruising altitude of a 747 passenger jet is around 35,000 feet above sea level, but Rüppell’s vultures have been found at confirmed elevations of 37,000 feet (and in fact that confirmation was acquired when one of the vultures was sucked into a jet engine in 1973 when the plane was at that elevation). It’s actually possible they can (and do) fly even higher, but we have yet to observe them at such extreme elevations.
How does the bird survive such an ascent? Rüppell’s vultures have specialized hemoglobin with a radically increased affinity for oxygen that allows them to absorb oxygen at extreme elevations. Along with how they do it, the even bigger question is why they do it. They do it to increase their field of vision. If you’ve got good eyes (and they certainly do), you can see miles and miles of territory from that elevation. Rather than expend precious energy flying over long distances to see the same amount of territory, they’ll fly lazily along at 20,000 feet (their common altitude range) above the Earth to find their next meal without expending too much energy in the process.
Image courtesy of Rob Shoenmaker.