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Cathartidae, commonly called the New World vultures, is a family of five vulture and two condor species. All are currently found exclusively in North and South America, but between 3-20 million years ago were cathartid vultures were common in the Old world as well. The fossil record shows record of many more, now extinct, cathartid species during this time, representing a wide diversity of form, size and ecology.
Although they share many physical resemblances to the Old World vultures (family Accipitridae), New World vultures are not considered closely related to this family. Phylogenetic placement of the family Cathartidae has been controversial; their relation relative to other vultures, storks, and other birds of prey is still disputed (Hackett et al. 2008).
Unlike Old World Vultures, most cathartids use their developed sense of smell, rather than sight, when scavenging for carrion and can detect carcasses from the air up to a mile away (Hackett et al 2008; Wikipedia 2013). Cathartid vultures are generally large birds. The California condor is the largest North American flying bird, with a 10 ft (3 m) wingspan, and reaching 14kg (31 pounds) in weight. With wings specialized for soaring, New World vultures achieve heights of 15,000 ft (4600 m) (Wikipedia 2013; National Geographic 2013)
The Cathartidae is composed of the following species, all classified in separate genera except for the yellow headed vultures (genus Cathartes). Two species are listed as threatened or endangered on the IUCN red list (Vultur gryphus, Gymnogyps californianus). Cathartes melambrotus, although listed as of “Least Concern” has experienced population decline (IUCN 2013).
Coragyps atratus (the black vulture) found from South America to the United States
Cathartes aura (turkey vulture) found throughout the Americas to southern Canada
Cathartes burrovianus (lesser yellow-headed vulture) found in South America north to Mexico
Cathartes melambrotus (greater yellow-headed vulture) found in the Amazon Basin of tropical South America
Gymnogyps californianus (California condor) currently critically endangered and found only in California, but formerly widespread in the mountains of western North America.
Vultur gryphus (Andean condor) found in the Andes of South America
Sarcoramphus papa (king vulture) found from Southern Mexico to northern Argentina