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Osteophagia: An unusual eating habit that actually isn’t very unusual.

on May 2, 2013

Animals’ bodies are complex machines, and in order to fuel themselves, they require complex fuels; fuels in the form of food. Of course, different animals require different foods depending on their physical requirements and metabolisms, these requirements are met in the form of nutrients; the chemicals that are absorbed into the tissues of animals to help with their bodily functioning.

Carnivores are animals that feed on the flesh of other animals and by digesting their tissues they can derive all the nutrients they need whereas herbivores gain all of their nutrients from the digestion of vegetable matter, but in reality the distinction is not as clear as it first appears. The animal kingdom is full of varied diets; from frugivores and granivores (fruit eaters and seed eaters) to pescivores and insectivores (fish eaters and, well you know what insectivores eat…). Animals tend to specialise in certain food types, and they have physical adaptations that correspond to their dietary habits, for example; a giraffe’s long neck is suited to feeding on leaves at a height.

A giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) chews on another animal's bone (osteophagia).

A giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) chews on another animal’s bone.

But animals can’t always get all of the nutrients they require from their staple food sources and a perfect example is the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), pictured above and also in a previous post, who is supplementing a herbivorous diet by chewing on another animal’s bone. Long after an animal has had its flesh fall (or torn) from its bones, those bones still contain a lot of nutrients, predominantly phosphorous and calcium, which remains a potential food resource and this giraffe is exploiting that fact. Of course, a giraffe is a strict herbivore and its digestive system reflects this; being unable to adequately process animal tissues, bones included, and so they merely chew on bones in order to gleam some particles of the nutrients they need. The same is true in many other species of herbivore; many types of antelope as well as buffalo and zebra have been observed chewing on bones that they have found in the bush.

The bush is full of resources that organisms may exploit, so long as they’re adaptable; conditions may change and there are times when regions are nutrient rich, and times when they are nutrient poor, so if animals are to survive then they need to be adaptable and seize whatever opportunities to take nutrients that they can. Some animals practice other unusual feeding habits in order to meet their nutritional requirements; some will feed on non-organic material such as dirt or stones (this is called geophagia), and others will even eat the faeces of other animals (coprophagia) to recycle nutrients that haven’t yet been digested.

Leopard Tortoises (Stigmochelys pardalis) need some of the nutrients found in animal bones, but are certainly not always able to get their mouths around a big juicy bone, instead, they feed on the droppings of hyena; hyenas being animals that have strong jaws, capable of crushing through bones and strong digestive systems capable of processing bones. Hyena faeces is often white because it contains such high levels of calcium where bones have been digested; the leopard tortoise can supplement its diet quite nicely with these white nuggets. In effect, by doing this, the leopard tortoise is technically practicing both osteophagia and coprophagia, but it has also been observed nibbling directly on animals’ bones.

The white calcium rich droppings of a brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea).

The calcium rich droppings of a brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea).

A little leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) hiding in the grass.

A little leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) hiding in the grass.

The fact that even herbivores will feed on the bones of other animals demonstrates the complexity of the interrelationships between different organisms and African ecosystems are so diverse that opportunities for organisms to interact (whether in life or death) are abundant.

Much love,

If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Diet category.
Other Diet entries:
Geophagia: Eat dirt!
Coprophagia: Poop is Food

4 responses to “Osteophagia: An unusual eating habit that actually isn’t very unusual.

  1. Antonette says:


    Thank you for the interesting article.

    I have a leopard tortois and it loves dog poop. . . . is that fine?


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