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Fri Nov 16, 2012, 08:49 PM

Bambi Ate Thumper

Why herbivores sometimes eat meat.
By Jackson Landers
|Posted Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, at 4:30 AM ET

I stood in front of a smoking grill at a campground in Florida with a pair of raw T-bone steaks. As I dropped them onto the grill, I had that eerie sense of being stared at. I turned around and saw a whitetail doe staring at me from only a few yards away. Habituated to human presence and living in a place where hunting was forbidden, she seemed very interested in what I was doing. When the steaks came off the grill I sat down to eat and found an aggressive snout that wanted a share. I carved off a bite of rare meat and held it out for her. This supposed herbivore greedily devoured bites of cow flesh. Realizing that nobody would ever believe me, I grabbed a camera and got it on video.

Any third-grader can tell you the difference between herbivores and carnivores. Herbivores eat plants and carnivores eat meat, and then there are a few oddball omnivores that eat both. The dichotomy of plant-eaters and meat-eaters has become more than a set of rules for animals—it helps shape our view of the world. But is nature really so clear-cut?

The more I looked around, the more exceptions I began to find. It turns out that deer of various species have long been observed eating the flesh of the dead. Scientists have recorded deer devouring dead fish that had drifted to shore, gobbling them up at a rate of up to eight per minute. Deer have often been spotted feeding on larger carrion—sometimes even on the guts of other dead deer.

Deer belong to a group of animals called ruminants, which have a special organ called a rumen for digesting tough plants. Cows are probably the best-known ruminants (and have been witnessed eating birds). Yet even animals from this highly plant-specialized group will eat meat when given the chance. The various species of duiker (imagine a very small antelope with a fat belly) in Africa often eat carrion and have also been observed hunting for small birds and frogs.


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