The Flamingo's Balancing Act

Jun 9, 2017 By James H, Young Editor
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Images of flamingos are found in ancient cave paintings. Plastic and metal flamingos adorn many homes as decorative ornaments. 

We are fascinated with this large bird that can stand on one leg for hours. Scientists have been fascinated too and have been looking for answers to why and how the flamingo manages this feat.

There have been some theories-- perhaps the birds are more stable on one leg or it helps them conserve energy. A new study has shed more light on the flamingo's balancing act. Lets look at these amazing birds first. 

Why Pink?

Flamingos are pink-feathered birds that mostly live in marshy areas or lagoons - usually where water is a little salty or alkaline. The tallest of these birds-- the "greater flamingo" is found in Africa, India and the Middle East. A few other species are found in South America. 

These non-migratory birds are well-known for their S-shaped neck and curved beak, both of which help them catch their food. A flamingo's diet consists of algae and crustaceans like shrimp; the pigments that are found in the algae and shrimp are what make the flamingo feathers pink. In fact, the pigment that makes flamingos pink are in fact in several of the foods we eat, such as carrots and beets. But they are not strong enough to turn us pink the way they do to flamingo feathers!

Flamingos build a mound of mud for a nest, where the female lays one egg. The flamingo young is born with white down that eventually matures into the pink feathers of an adult. Flamingos are usually found in a large flock, and they are able to recognize the voice of their young within a large group. 

The Balancing Act

Did you know that the joint you see on a flamingo's leg is their ankle? Their knees are covered by their feathers!

A common theory includes that the one-legged act helps them regulate their body temperature. Recently, scientists have observed that flamingos are more stable when standing on one leg, and surprisingly, there are no leg muscles involved to help them balance. They concluded that the flamingo’s balancing act on one leg helps them spend less energy than when standing on two legs.

By studying both live and dead flamingos, the scientists have discovered that no energy or active muscles are needed to stand on one leg. Even flamingo corpses are able to balance on one leg! One leg just locks into place and remains rigid while the other folds and tucks itself into the feathers. This passive mechanism allows the flamingo to balance its center of gravity as it stands on one leg.

Understanding the leg-locking feature can help researchers to make better prosthetics, specifically artificial legs.