What is Carrion and Why is it Important?

Discover the role carrion plays in the ecosystem and uncover which creatures are dependent on it for survival. Plus, discover its safety for human consumption.

Sep 20, 2023byNatasha Elder
what is carrion survival

Carrion is a pretty big deal in the world of animal meal plans. But what exactly is carrion? And why is it so important? This blog post will explore what carrion is defined as, why it holds such a crucial role in sustaining ecosystems, and which animals partake in eating this decomposing delicacy. Ready to dig in?

What is Carrion?

vulture eating carrion carcass
Image credit: PXFuel

First things first, what is carrion? There’s no nice way to put this: carrion is the decaying and rotting flesh of dead animals. Translated from the Latin word caro, carrion means ‘meat’. An animal becomes carrion at the moment of its death, provided it meets the criteria. To be considered carrion, an animal needs to have died by any means other than being killed by the animal that eats it.

Animals that die accidentally, such as in a window collision, a net tangle, or a fall, or if an animal is killed by a vehicle or dies as a result of old age, injury, or disease, are considered carrion. In other words, the animal who eats it has to find it already dead.

As carrion matures and bacteria begins to grow, it will emit putrescine and cadaverine and produce a foul odor that gets worse by the second. While this putrid scent will turn a human’s stomach, it will make an animal’s stomach grumble.

Why is Carrion Important?

animal skeleton usa monument valley national
Image credit: PeakPX

Now that you know what carrion is, you’re probably wondering why it matters. As it turns out, carrion is extremely important in the animal kingdom as it is a vital part of the ecosystem and the wild food web.

When an animal dies, bacteria get to work immediately at decomposing the tissue. Within minutes, necrophagous creatures, including flies (specifically true flies, blow flies, and the aptly named flesh flies) and beetles (burying beetles, rove beetles, and carrion beetles are the most common) are on the scene. By this point, the smell of the decomposing flesh will be strong, and larger carrion eaters will show up. All of the animals that eat the carrion then cycle the nutrients back into the soil in the form of feces.

Once all the meat, organs, and other juicy bits have been consumed, the clean-up crew moves in to get rid of the soft tissue around bones (thanks to dermestid beetles) and hair or feathers (courtesy of Tineid moths). Decomposers like insects and fungi further break the carrion down into simpler substances in a process called nutrient recycling which leaves the soil beneath it healthier than ever. One could say that carrion is a link between life and death.

Which Animals Eat Carrion?

corvus crow eating carrion
Image credit: Wikimedia

Now let’s address which animals count carrion as part of their diet. Carrion is a big part of the diet in plenty of carnivores as well as omnivores.

Some animals eat carrion as their main (and in some cases only) food source. Other animals consider it as something of a last resort to avoid starving. Desperate times and all that.

Carrion is the primary food source for many scavengers, including blowflies, vultures (whose diet is exclusively carrion), condors, buzzards, crows, and hyenas. Surprising apex predators like coconut crabs and Komodo dragons also eat plenty of carrion.

Other meat-eating animals will also eat carrion if they’ve been unable to hunt or find alternative food sources. Animals that are known to eat carrion on occasion include:

  • Lions
  • Leopards
  • Black bears
  • Wolves
  • Coyotes
  • Foxes
  • Opossums
  • Tasmanian devils

Heck, forget the delicious DIY meals for animals; domesticated pets like cats and dogs will eat carrion if the opportunity arises. It essentially depends on how hungry the animal in question is.

Can Humans Eat Carrion?

empty dinner plate with cutlery
Image credit: Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

In some parts of the world, humans will eat carrion due to necessity or opportunity. This is not recommended for several social, religious, and scientific reasons. Mainly, the longer the meat sits, the more unfit for human consumption it becomes. Some studies suggest that after around 24 hours, bacteria such as enterobacteria, Staphylococcus, and E. coli found on carrion reach dangerous levels.

In roadkill cases, where you know the exact cause and time of death because you were directly involved, it is legal in several states to harvest fresh carrion. However, even still, it’s not recommended for humans to eat carrion because you never know if the animal you killed had any sicknesses at the time of its death.

The question of ‘Can humans consume carrion?’ seems to be a classic case of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should in action.

Natasha Elder
byNatasha Elder

Natasha is a mother, a wife, a writer, and a serial cat owner. Though she is currently in mourning, her heart not ready for another feline family member just yet, she has always lived life with four paws beside her. She loves – you guessed it – cats, as well as creatures of the fluffy, scaly, and finned variety. Natasha longs to meet Sir David Attenborough one day and is passionate about responsible pet ownership