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Hollywood Bug Wrangler David Brody

Entomologist Dave Brody. He is a former curator of the Entomology department of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Brody was the insect consultant for films like "Creepshow" and "The Believers."


Other segments from the episode on December 30, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 30, 1998: Interview with Dave Brody; Interview with Edward O. Wilson; Interview with Harry Greene; Interview with Wayne Grady.


Date: DECEMBER 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 123001np.217
Head: Edward O. Wilson
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:15

TERRY GROSS, HOST: When ants are marching across your kitchen or taking over your picnic lunch, it's unlikely that you'll pause to reflect on what fascinating creatures they are. Maybe this is a better time. Before we meet one of the world's foremost ant experts, let's hear an ant's point of view as expressed by Woody Allen in the animated film "Ants."


WOODY ALLEN, ACTOR; PORTRAYING THE VOICE OF AN ANT: My mother never had time for me. You know, when you're the middle child in a family five million you don't get any attention. I mean, how's it possible?

And I've always had these abandonment issues which plague me. My father was basically a drone, like I've said, and, you know, the guy flew away when I was just a larvae. And my job -- don't get me started on, because it really annoys me. I was not cut out to be a worker. I'll tell you right now.

I feel physically inadequate. My whole life, I have never -- I have never been able to lift more than 10 times my own body weight. And when you get down to it, handling dirt is, you know, not my idea of a rewarding career.

It's this whole gung-ho, super organism thing that, you know, I can't get. I tried, but I don't get it. You know, what is it? I'm supposed to do everything for the colony, and what about my needs? What about me?

GROSS: Woody Allen, from the film "Ants." Edward O. Wilson knows all about ants. He won his second Pulitzer Prize for his 1990 book, "The Ants." Wilson is a professor at Harvard, and honorary curator in Entomology at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. I spoke to him in 1994, after the publication of "Journey to the Ants."

In your new book, "Journey to the Ants," you have these fantastic blown up photographs of ants. This is how ants look, I guess, under a microscope. You know, if you enlarge them thousands of times. And in these enlarged photographs the ants look a lot, to me anyway, like dinosaurs.

They have dinosaur type faces, and their little antenna look like horns coming out of the head. They look quite prehistoric to me. And, in fact, the ants date back to the dinosaur era. So, is that why they look the way they do?

EDWARD O. WILSON, BIOLOGIST; AUTHOR; "NATURALIST," "THE ANTS," "JOURNEY TO THE ANTS": Well, not just -- it's not that great an age, I think it's the fact that they have external skeletons. We are typical mammals in that we have an internal skeleton, and our tissues, right out to our thin soft skin, are added, like padding, onto that internal skeletal structure.

But insects, including ants, have it the other way around. They have a skeleton on the outside, then they have all that soft tissue on the inside, and having the hard body parts on the outside means that they build spines and plates and horns and medieval armor-like joints all over the body that does give them a dinosaur look. In fact they are much more extreme in that regard than a dinosaur is.

GROSS: I want to o see ants a little more through your eyes. A lot of people see ants as just, you know, pests that attack your food when you're on a picnic or that infest your house much to your dismay. What do the ants do that are wonderful within the larger ecosystem?

WILSON: Let me introduce that by telling you the answer to the question that I'm most often asked about ants, and that is what do I do about the ones in my kitchen? And my answer is always the same, watch where you step. Be careful of little lives. Put down a little bit of cookie crumbs for them. Maybe a touch of whip cream, they like that too. And watch them for a while, and you will see a world that is as different from our own as can be imagined.

It is a world of the kind that one might expect if life had been found on Mars or as we may indeed find on some other planet. Ants belong to an evolutionary line that diverged from our own half a billion years ago. And they achieved numerous adaptations to the world including their social organization in a way that's radically different from our own.

So, look at them as inhabitants, if you will, as another planet. And this difference includes, to come quickly to the point of what I see in them -- as a scientist who works on them, includes their near total reliance on chemical communication. And here they are really radically different from us.

We are audio-visual creatures. We should realize that our dependence on sound and sight to get through the world and to communicate with one another is really rather exceptional in the animal world. And the ants are much more typical in being chemical. That is to say they release substances -- chemicals -- secretions from all over their bodies.

They have special glands to -- for this purpose that then they pass back and forth. They taste. They smell. That is with different chemicals that they actually are able to communicate with one another rapidly and in a sophisticated manner. For example, there are chemicals they release to alarm one another saying, there is an enemy there.

GROSS: My guest is entomologist E.O. Wilson. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're talking about ants with entomologist Edward O. Wilson.

You did an experiment on a chemical an ant gives off when the ant has died; that communicates to the other ants that the ant is dead and needs to be carried out of the ant nest. tell us about the experiment.

WILSON: When an ant dies it -- just like any other dead thing it crumples up. It might be lying on its back, but it's not noticed by the other ants rushing by it inside the nest as we would notice it because we're visual. And the ants in the nest wait until the corpse begins to decay. And after two or three days it's full of substances that are -- you find in a corpse.

You know, all of these unpleasant things like triamethalomine (ph) and scato (ph) and fatty acids and so on. And it occurred to me -- this -- we're talking back in the 50's during the early days of working out the chemical language of ants.

It occurred to me that ants probably -- having small brains, not being able to process very much information -- depended, not on all that array of charnal house smells but probably zeroed in on the distinctive smell. And so it proved -- I got out of this synthetic forum many of the chemicals that are found in corpses.

My laboratory was unbearable to visitors for weeks during those experiments. And I tried them out one after the other on ants that I had in the laboratory, and finally hit upon the astonishing discovery that, indeed, ants identify a corpse with alleic acid. When you daub alleic acid -- pure alleic acid -- on a piece of paper or a live ant from that nest, it's treated as a corpse.

And I amused myself and students for years after by putting alleic acid on live ants and watching them be picked up by their nest mates, and carried out and dumped on the refuse pile where corpses are placed. And the ants had to, of course, pick themselves up and try to clean themselves off and get back to work inside the nest.

But if they didn't get enough of that alleic acid off, then they would be picked up and dumped in the corpse pile again. And this kept on until, finally, they got clean enough to rejoin the living. It's sort of the night of the living dead.

GROSS: Were you able to analyze whether the living dead ants could do anything to protest being carried off?

WILSON: Nothing whatsoever, because, you see, there's nothing in the natural world that adds something like alleic acid to the body of ants. And ants are magnificently programmed to do certain things with great efficiency and speed, but there are many things they're not programmed to do because there has never been any occasion in their evolution for them to do it. And therefore you can play tracks on ants.

One of my favorites is to take a trail substance which I first discovered back in the late '50s in different kinds of ants. These are the substances that the ants lay down from particular glands in the rear part of their body and they -- the workers are going outside the nest to find a piece of food or a good place to build a new nest -- will lay a trail consisting of the materials from that gland back to the nest.

So, once I discovered what that substance was and the gland that it was coming from, then I could bring the ants out any time I wanted and take them anywhere I wanted. And one extreme experiment that I did, I led a group of slave-making ants. These are ants that specialize in enslaving other kinds of ants and living off their labor.

And I actually brought out armies of slave-making ants, and had them milling around at the end of my artificial trail and confusing -- wondering where the war was -- where the battle was. They were brought out and they didn't have any colony to attack and enslave.

GROSS: You can make yourself a cold leader in the ant world.

WILSON: Yes, indeed. It's possible, I think, with 20 or 30 substances, the key ones, that the ants use to communicate chemically with to have complete mind control of an ant colony. Let that be a lesson for us.

GROSS: Well, really, say you had -- say instead of being a brilliant scientist you had a sick and perverse mind. I mean, you could use these ants for all kinds of unusual purposes, no?

WILSON: Well, probably not because most ant colonies are really rather delicate constructions. And they may seem annoying and iniradicatable when they're living in the walls of your house, but when you start altering them a little bit -- putting them in a wrong environment or messing up their communications system with trials of the kind that I've conducted, then the colony falls apart rather quickly.

GROSS: What would happen to the world if all the ants were to magically disappear?

WILSON: Terrible things. Let me preface my response by saying that, of course, we will do everything in our power to save the human species. That is the entire meaning of our own lives. But if the human species were to disappear from the earth, the earth would go on unperturbed.

In fact, the ecosystems of the world would regain their previous equilibrium and, short of some great meteorite strike, the planet could count on another billion years or so of undisturbed evolution amidst great biological diversity.

But if ants, these little despised creatures at our feet, were to disappear; because they are such vital parts of the ecosystem of which the turning of the soil, and the removal of dead animals, and the predation of other kinds of animals, and so on is vital.

If they were removed then we would see a partial collapse of the ecosystems on the land. Probably many thousands of other species would become extinct; soon afterward many plants would go extinct and so on. There would be a major reorganization and a deep pauperization of the land ecosystems of the world would suffer if it lost an important group like the ants.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WILSON: Thank you for the privilege.

GROSS: Edward O. Wilson, recorded in 1994 after the publication of his book, "Journey to the Ants."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Edward O. Wilson
High: Biologist Edward O. Wilson has been called "The Ant Man" by "The New York Times Magazine." He has spent most of his life studying ants. He co-authored the critically acclaimed "The Ants" with Bert Holldobler. The pair published a sequel to that work, "Journey to the Ants." Wilson has a memoir, "Naturalist," that chronicles his love of ants.
Spec: Animals; Science; Environment; Education; Edward O. Wilson

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Edward O. Wilson

Date: DECEMBER 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 123002NP.217
Head: Harry Greene
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our animal week continues with a look at one of the creatures you probably fear most. It's the creature my guest is obsessed with: the snake. There are 2,700 species of snakes. Harry Greene is particularly interested in the venomous ones.

He travels around the world studying the behavior of serpents. He tracks them by surgically implanting small radios, then monitoring their transmissions. He's done field work in Europe, Africa, Latin America, the West Indies, and the United States.

He's curator of Herpetology in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California-Berkeley. And he's the author of the book "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature."

I spoke with him in 1997. Just before we turned the tape on, Greene asked me what I thought of snakes. A logical question for him to ask, I thought. But next, he asked me what I thought of spiders. I couldn't figure out why he wanted to know.

HARRY GREENE, CURATOR OF HERPETOLOGY, MUSEUM OF VERTEBRATE ZOOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA-BERKELEY: I asked you about the spiders because it turns out to be the case that a fair number of people who like snakes are arachnophobic. They're afraid of spiders, at least mildly so.

GROSS: People who like snakes are afraid of spiders?

GREENE: The most famous person is probably E.O. Wilson, who you've probably talked to before.

GROSS: Oh, I have. Yeah.

GREENE: Yeah. He admits to being mildly arachnophobic and I am also, and I have no idea why these two things are coupled.

GROSS: You are afraid of spiders?

GREENE: I'm -- well, I'm uneasy about them. And I don't like being surprised by them.

GROSS: Even ones that aren't poisonous?

GREENE: Well, I think all spiders are venomous in a sense that they, you know, they have these little fangs and venom and so forth. It's just that only some of them affect people. But yes, even the ones that aren't dangerous to people give me the willys.

GROSS: That's really interesting, 'cause so many people get the willys from snakes and you love snakes.

GREENE: That's right. I would handle large venomous snakes all day long before I'd pick up a tarantula.

GROSS: Hmm. What is it that -- could you figure it out?

GREENE: I have no idea. It's very strange, because I've never been afraid of snakes since I was a small child and I've always been uneasy about spiders.


GREENE: You know, we know that the whole thing about snakes is very complicated; that it's likely that people have sort of a learning bias, an innate learning bias, to be afraid of snakes. And yet that bias can be easily reversed or reinforced by early experience, with your parents, your classmates and so forth. And perhaps spiders are the same way.

GROSS: Now I know you're particularly interested in venomous snakes, so before we get any further, let me hit you with a question that I'm sure everyone wants to hear, which is: have you been bitten?

GREENE: Ah, that's an embarrassing question because I wish I could say I'd never been bitten. But I was bitten once by a not very big copperhead when I was a teenager, and it was not a serious bite. I was measuring the copperhead in my garage laboratory.

I was 17 years old, and I was watching the tail tip next to the yardstick more carefully than I was watching the head. And the snake managed to get one fang out the side of its mouth and poke me in the thumb.

GROSS: What's the most dangerous snake that you've handled?

GREENE: The most dangerous snake I've handled is called a "turceo-palo" in Costa Rica. A lot of people know it as a "ferdilance." It's a very large pit viper; reaches the length of maybe seven feet or more and has very long fangs, very powerful venom, fairly prone to bite.

GROSS: And what do you do when you handle it? What's the best way to handle it?

GREENE: Well, actually I should tell you I try -- I've tried to get away from actually handling venomous snakes. When I started out in herpetology, it was common to handle venomous snakes by holding their head down with a metal hook and then picking them up carefully between your finger and your thumb.

And when I started going to meetings of herpetologists, people that study reptiles and amphibians, it was not uncommon to encounter something we called the "herpetologist handshake" which was a missing finger or a finger that looked like it had been in a pencil sharpener, or even a large mass of scar tissue in the palm.

And that's not very common now, and I think the main reason is that we've tried to get away from that. And I have picked up many venomous snakes with my bare hands before and I try to not do it anymore.

The way we do it is to use a plexiglass tube that's a little bit larger in diameter than the snake. And then with our snake hook, we coax the venomous snake to crawl part way up into the plexiglass tube, so it's essentially muzzled.

Then you can just pick it up right where the snake goes into the tube, and hold it so it can't move forward or backward -- can you sort of visualize...

GROSS: ...absolutely. Yeah.

GREENE: And it's great because it doesn't traumatize the snakes as much. It turned out that this mashing of the head down on the ground with enough force that you could safely restrain the snake is probably pretty hard on the animal. And they really freak out -- they start thrashing around trying to break free and trying to bite.

And if you run them up this plexiglass tube, they obviously feel restrained and usually struggle a little bit, but they don't just start flipping about and thrashing and trying to bite. So it's both more humane and much safer for us.

GROSS: You are particularly interested in venomous snakes. Why do snakes have venom?

GREENE: Well, we know -- what we know is that snakes use venom for various things. Probably all venomous snakes are using their venom to subdue prey. And maybe you know that snakes have this capacity to just eat enormous meals, and in the case of venomous snakes, they can eat meals up to about one-and-a-half times their body weight. So here I am 170 pound male, think in terms of me being able to eat a 210, 215-pound hamburger in 20 minutes without chopping it into pieces.

Now, they can only do that because they can subdue that meal. You know, I couldn't subdue a 220-pound cow and then swallow it whole, you know, without knife, fork -- implements and so on.

So the first thing venom does, probably, is it lets them subdue things. The other, probably, really important role it often plays is to help them digest things.

So when this rattlesnake is sitting next to a rat runway and the rat comes by and the snake, out of hiding, strikes it for just an instant, and with these hypodermic needle-like fangs, injects this venom into the rat, and then lets go -- the rat goes bounding off.

And as the rat goes bounding down the side of the canyon, its own heartbeats are circulating the digestive enzymes that are in the snake's venom. In the meantime, the snake starts crawling along, tracking the rat -- following its chemical trail. And the snake can distinguish between the trail of a bitten rat and an unbitten rat. Within a few minutes, it locates the rat which is by now dead, and by now is already being digested from the inside out.

So those are probably the two main roles -- are to subdue really big prey and to help digest this really big item that's soon going to be stuck in their stomach. Of course, there is an obvious third use, which is that many venomous snakes defend themselves with their venom.

GROSS: You've probably spent a lot of time watching snakes eat their prey?


GROSS: How long does it take for the rodent that the snake has ingested whole to stop being a big bulge in the body of the snake?

GREENE: You can watch it go down day by day, but say it was a snake that ate something approaching its own body weight. It might take it, in the wild, something like a week to 10 days to digest it. In fact once, with my radios, I found a female blacktail rattlesnake in the fall when it was quite chilly.

I walked up to her with my antenna and my receiver and locator and she had eaten what I think was a brush rabbit that probably weighed more than she did, and was so big that she couldn't coil and I don't think she could move.

And so of course I've become somewhat attached to these animals, having captured them and anesthetized them and put a radio in them, so my first thought was: oh, no, she's going to explode. It's cold and, you know, we have a lot of predators at our study site; maybe one's going to catch her.

But each day, I would come out and relocate her and each day the bulge would be a little smaller, and after nine days, she crawled up the canyon and went into hibernation, having eaten what was maybe a third of her energy budget for the whole year in this one feeding event.

GROSS: When you wonder what it's like to be a snake, do you wonder what it's like to have this big thing in the middle of your body after you've eaten?

GREENE: That's an interesting question 'cause I've tried to imagine various things about being a snake, and that's one I haven't had much success sort of thinking up a metaphor or an analog for. I probably -- I've tried to imagine what it's like to slither.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: I can't come very close to that. I've tried to imagine what it would be like to literally walk my head over an object bigger than me, and have my whole stomach stretched around it, and I can't empathize with that very well.

I've tried to think about what it would be like to live in a chemical realm. In other words, if somehow smell for us could have the texture and nuance that vision does, what would that be like?

GROSS: Is that the realm the snake lives in?

GREENE: That's pretty much the realm a snake lives in. They have eyes and they can see, but there's just no question that chemo-sensation, which is what that forked tongue is for, is preeminent in the lives of most snakes. And the closest I've come, I've tried to imagine odor experiences for humans where it has subliminal effects on us, you know -- where it has effects that we don't even think about.

And one of them would be like: have you ever been driving down the highway and you happen to pass by a bakery?

GROSS: Yeah.

GREENE: And so, suddenly it comes in your car window -- the smell of fresh-baked bread or yeast rolls. And you know, just almost before you think about it, you just start imagining right out of the oven yeast rolls with butter on them, or something like that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: And I think that's in the direction of what it would be like to be a snake. Probably a more powerful example would be if you've ever noticed the odors you can smell in a landscape that you like after it rains.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

GREENE: And you -- for me, that's a very hopeful, happy feeling, to be driving along in the Sonoran Desert, for example, and smell the creosote odors and so forth right after a rain. I think before I consciously think about what does that mean, I'm already feeling sort of exhilarated and optimistic because of it. And I think that being a snake must be like that in the chemical world, except a lot more.

GROSS: My guest is herpetologist Harry Greene. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Harry Greene, author of "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature."

So what species of snakes are you most involved studying now?

GREENE: For the past several years, I've been working in Arizona and mostly working on rattlesnakes, and particularly something called a blacktail rattlesnake, which is a really beautiful yellow and diamond-patterned animal with a jet-black tail and sort of a black mask through the eyes. Looks sort of like Indian beadwork.

GROSS: Why do rattlers rattle?

GREENE: To scare people away -- to scare adversaries away. And that's virtually the only reason. The rattle doesn't rattle -- they don't rattle, for example, when they're trying to catch prey or when they're courting -- times like that.

In fact, the only time I ever hear the rattle, other than when the snake is upset, is that the courtship involves the male sort of poking around the female's tail with his tail. And often for the first several hours, and even several days of a courtship encounter, the female kind of keeps the male at bay. He follows her around just for hours and rubs her back and tongue-flicks her back and so forth.

And every few minutes, he tries to lift her tail with his so he can mate with her. And at that stage, she slaps him away with her tail, and it makes a clanking sound of the rattles, not a loud buzzing like you get when they're defending themselves.

So sometimes when I'm sitting and watching a courting pair, and they disappear into vegetation and I can't seem them well, I'll know exactly what stage the courtship is at when I hear this "clack, clack, clack, clack, clack," I know that she's just slapped him away and the whole thing's starting over.

GROSS: And how dangerous is the rattlesnake's bite?

GREENE: Well, you know, it turns out we don't have real good statistics on snakebite in this country. Probably many snakebites, perhaps even some snakebite deaths, go unreported. But people have guessed in the neighborhood of 2,000 bites a year from all venomous snakes in this country, and maybe 10 deaths a year in the whole United States.

And it turns out, we know now pretty much what causes death, so if you actually were to die from a rattlesnake bite, it would probably be because you went into shock from having your blood circulatory system damaged. And that's preventable in a hospital situation. So the bottom line is that basically you shouldn't die from a snakebite in this country with proper medical care.

GROSS: If you had a friend who was bit by a snake, would you try to make an incision and suck out the venom, like we see in old cowboy movies?

GREENE: Well, I wouldn't make an incision. I don't think anybody recommends that any more, for a couple of reasons. One is: we were always recommending that people stay calm, and I don't know why we didn't stop to think that you're not very likely to be calm if somebody's whacking away at your finger with a dull Swiss Army knife. You know, I mean that's sort of guaranteed to make you not calm.

And the other thing is there's a fairly serious danger that you would cut a nerve or a tendon or a blood vessel and actually cause something much more serious than the snakebite in terms of permanent injury.

There is -- there are snakebite kits that act as suction devices, and there is a possibility that they do some good. So, physicians I've worked with do recommend using those suction devices if they're conveniently available immediately. But the most important thing is just to keep the victim calm and get them to a medical facility.

GROSS: You explained before that part of what the snake venom does to the snake's prey is pre-digest it.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So like a mouse, for instance, would start getting digested from the inside out before the snake has even had a chance to swallow it.

GREENE: That's right.

GROSS: Do humans get pre-digested by snake venom when they're bit?

GREENE: That's right. So if you were to get bitten by a good-sized rattlesnake in the hand, within a couple of hours probably your whole forearm would be swollen. Certainly by the next day, probably your entire arm would be twice its normal diameter. So actually, it's pretty gross. I mean, if you got bitten by a big viper, within a day or two your arm or hand would basically look it had been barbecued.

GROSS: Harry Greene is the author of "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Harry Greene
High: Harry Greene is Curator of Herpetology in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and is a Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California. Last year his book, "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature," was published.
Spec: Animals; Environment; Education; Harry Greene

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Harry Greene

Date: DECEMBER 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 123003NP.217
Head: Wayne Grady
Sect: News; domestic
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: In those old Westerns if a cowboy is bitten by a rattlesnake and dies, there's going to be vultures circling overhead. People are seldom happy to see vultures.

In the Bible they were called "an abomination." Charles Darwin described the turkey vulture as a disgusting bird with its bald scarlet head formed to wallow in putridity. In art and literature, vultures are always the harbingers of imminent demise.

Nature writer Wayne Grady points all this out in the beginning of his book, "Vulture: Nature's Ghastly Gourmet." But he spends the rest of the book trying to undo the bad press vultures have received. The book is filled with information that is as fascinating as it is unappetizing.

I asked him first about the place of the vulture in mythology and popular culture.

WAYNE GRADY, AUTHOR, "VULTURE: GHASTLY GOURMET": In Europe, certainly, and in India, the bird is in a lot of the early mythology of India. They're known as the gatekeepers of hell because they, for obvious reasons I guess, I mean, they deal with death and dead things. And so it's natural to associate them with death and hell.

In India, for the past 1,500 years or more, there's been a regular ritual ceremony in which dead bodies are exposed on mountaintops to vultures who come and eat them. It's called a "sky burial." It's a rather gruesome ritual, but it's -- it's been part of the mythology for centuries.

GROSS: I'm going to stop you right there. I don't know if you saw the movie "Kundun" -- the Martin Scorsese movie about the ...

GRADY: Ah, yes.

GROSS: ... Dalai Lama. But there's a scene at a Tibetan monastery in which one of the monks dies, and the monk is basically -- his body is basically chopped up into smaller pieces and left for the vultures to eat.

GRADY: Yes, that's the sky burial. And that takes place still today. I mean, it happens every day but Sunday, apparently. And the bodies are chopped up and ground up into small pieces. The bones are broken up and mixed with yak milk, I think, so that every part of the body is consumed by hordes of vultures that come down and hang around the area for that particular purpose.

GROSS: Is that a way -- what is the point of that, sky burial?

GRADY: I think there are two things. I mean, there's the philosophical point which is sort of becoming one with nature when you die. It's exactly the same as being buried in North America or Europe. You know, the body is decomposed and made to become one with the earth, in this case with a creature of the earth.

But the practical, I think, application in Tibet is that there's no soil up there. There's not six feet of soil at the top of the mountaintops. So that it's a way of disposing of corpses without causing disease.

GROSS: Vultures eat putrid, decaying corpses that no other animal would go near. I mean, other animals would get sick if they ate this. How come vultures don't get sick when they eat putrid corpses?

GRADY: Well, they have some kind of -- I don't really know the science of this -- but they have some kind of special juices in their intestinal tract that kills bacteria. They're actually -- I think people should be studying whatever it is inside a vulture that kills things like anthrax for example. There's a lot of talk about anthrax in the news these days, and weapons-grade anthrax.

There isn't any real antidote to anthrax. If a human comes down with that disease, there aren't too many things you can take to counteract the bacterial infection. But somehow, the vulture has something in its gut that kills anthrax, and we should probably be taking a look at it.

GROSS: This kind of gives them the edge when it comes to getting food ...

GRADY: Well, I ...

GROSS: ... 'cause they don't have a lot of competition in eating this stuff.

GRADY: Well, that's right. There's a real niche there for them. They're -- a lot of things do eat dead animals, but there aren't very many things that eat exclusively dead animals. For a vulture, the deader the better. And they have to have some kind of internal system for eating that stuff without getting sick.

GROSS: My guest is nature writer Wayne Grady. We'll talk more about vultures after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Wayne Grady, author of "Vulture: Nature's Ghastly Gourmet."

Would you describe how the vulture is physically designed to be able to eat dead animals?

GRADY: Well, the most obvious thing is the naked head and neck. They're -- one of the species, the turkey vulture, is so called because it, like a turkey or like a flamingo, it has no feathers on its neck or on its head; makes it look kind of weird as a bird. We're used to seeing birds covered all over in feathers. But vultures have no feathers from the shoulder up.

And that's an adaptation for -- to the kinds of -- the way they eat. I mean, they stick their heads into rather horrible places and they can sort of pull their heads out without bringing a lot of gore and stuff attached to their feathers.

And we mentioned the stomach juices that are able to digest bacteria. Their feet are -- are not adapted to grasping. For a long time, vultures were thought to be members of the same family as hawks and owls and eagles and things. But they're -- but unlike those other raptors, vultures cannot grasp onto a carcass and fly off with it. Their feet are particularly useful for tearing and rendering, but not for carrying.

So they have to stay pretty much where the carcass is -- where they find the carcass. They don't take it home with them as other raptors do.

GROSS: Is it coincidence that some of them are colored like blood and guts?

GRADY: Yes, it's probably coincidence. The coloration is probably more for sexual display than for -- than to remind them of what they eat.

GROSS: A sex and violence thing here.

GRADY: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: I was fascinated to read that vultures have no voice box, so this is a bird without a song.

GRADY: It's a bird without a song, and a bird with a sense of smell. So there are two unusual bird-like qualities there. Yeah, they don't have a voice box, so they sort of -- they can click at one another and they do that during the mating ritual. But they don't -- they don't squawk or cry or sing or anything like -- that other birds do.

GROSS: How do vultures find the dead and dying corpses that they feed on?

GRADY: Well, two things -- turkey vultures and greater yellow-headed vultures have a sense of smell. And they're one of the very few -- probably, oh, two or three other species of birds in the bird kingdom, have a sense of smell -- and very, very highly developed. A turkey vulture can smell a rotting corpse from 1,000 feet in the air.

And they sort of cruise in the forests, in the forest canopy and in the open savannas, waiting to sort of catch a whiff of something. In fact, I read somewhere that natural gas line repairmen look for circling turkey vultures over a part of the territory where they know that there's a leak in the gas line, and because natural gas smells like rotting food, turkey vultures are often fooled by a gas leak. So line repairmen will look for circling vultures to tell them where there's a possible leak in the line.

And other vultures who have not developed a sense of smell will follow the turkey vultures, or the yellow-headed vultures, to a corpse. So you get -- you might sometimes get a situation where there's three different species of vultures circling over an area; two of the species watching the turkey vulture to come down, and then as soon as they see a turkey vulture go down, they'll go down and sort of bump the turkey vulture off the carcass and take over. There's a very strict hierarchy of feeding in vulture-land.

GROSS: Do you find vultures beautiful?

GRADY: Oh, yeah I do. I find -- I find -- I didn't when I started working on this book. I must confess, I was not one of the vulture's big fans until I really sort of got to know from reading and talking to researchers and observing myself, got to know that they were actually a very interesting bird; very unique; have unique problems and have found unique solutions to the problems.

So I find them sort of, I guess, intellectually beautiful. Some of them are actually quite physically beautiful. I mentioned the king vulture earlier. The turkey vulture, with its bright red head and neck, is quite nice -- quite nice looking, too.

I find -- I quite like birds. I'm an amateur birder and spend a lot of time watching birds. And if you spend any time at all watching vultures in the air, particularly, you have to admit that they're an absolutely beautiful animal to watch. They -- the way they circle on the air waves, you know, the warm air thermals, they just glide and they can glide up there for hours with hardly ever moving a wing to propel themselves. They just sort of ride those thermals.

They have extraordinarily large wing-span for the body weight, so they can hang-glide for literally hours and hours -- traveling hundreds and hundreds of kilometers with maybe flapping their wings two or three times.

GROSS: Wayne Grady is the author of "Vulture: Nature's Ghastly Gourmet."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Wayne Grady
High: The truth about vultures with Wayne Grady. Grady's recent book, "Vulture: Ghastly Gourmet," describes in words and photographs the life of the vulture.
Spec: Animals; Media; Environment; Wayne Grady

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Wayne Grady
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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