Plants and Animals

How Planet Earth’s ice-skating flamingos collectively get ‘in the mood’ for sex

The ConversationThe 1980 animated feature film Animalympics featured an ice-skating flamingo who competed for gold against a whole range of other sporting animals. In the second edition of BBC nature programme Planet Earth II, this cartoon seemed to have turned into reality. Sort of. The flocks of flamingos filmed high in the Andes Mountains were certainly skating along on their frozen pools, though they didn’t quite provide a medal-winning performance.

For a bird as fragile-looking as the flamingo, this bleak, icy wetland would seem a strange place to call home. Yet many of them do, and Planet Earth features two of my favourite species: the Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus) and the James’ flamingo (P. jamesi), also known as the puna flamingo, after the local term for these high plateaus. The Andean is the rarest of the six flamingo species, with fewer than 40,000 remaining in the wild.

Their movements and breeding cycles are hard to predict and tricky to study. So vast is the Andes plateau that the James’ flamingo was considered extinct until 1956 when it was suddenly rediscovered in Bolivia’s remote Laguna Colorada (Red Lake), 4,000 metres above sea level. Flamingos do a good disappearing act; whole flocks will vanish overnight as they travel between mountain lakes searching for the best food supply.

The author studies the social lives of these Andean flamingos. Paul Rose, Author provided

Flamingos thrive in inhospitable conditions

Flamingos are often associated with tropical beaches, palm trees and piña coladas. But this is far from the truth. All six species are highly adapted to living in inhospitable and unfriendly environments such as very salty or very alkaline wetlands. More than a million lesser flamingos breed in Tanzania’s Lake Natron, for instance, a lake fed by hot springs with water so alkaline that it can strip away human skin (one pioneering flamingo researcher named Leslie Brown spent months in Nairobi General Hospital after burning his legs wading out to observe where the birds nested).

Yet flamingos thrive in conditions like these. And they thrive because, in each location, they have discovered an untapped food source they can collect with little competition from other species.

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