Species that scavenge on dead animals are exposed to enhanced disease risks. Eight hypotheses have been suggested to explain how scavengers avoid becoming sick from their diet. We conducted a systematic review of the literature and found correlative support for four of the eight hypotheses but limited evidence of systematic studies of the hypotheses. We found no support that using urine to sterilize carcasses, having bald heads, eating rapidly, or food-washing behavior reduced disease risk in carrion eaters. With the exception of food washing, none of these hypotheses have been properly evaluated as an adaptation to avoid sickness from carrion. There is some support for having a specialized microbiome, having enhanced immunologic defenses, avoiding rotten food, and maintaining a low gastric pH to eliminate pathogens. Specialized immunologic defenses and having a low pH have the most support, but the diversity of mechanisms suggests that there is a great opportunity for even more detailed study. Increased knowledge in these mechanisms may provide biomimetic insights to help combat foodborne illnesses and enhance health.
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Vol. 53 • No. 3