Flamingos: Nature’s Croquet Mallet

Flamingos are very strange creatures. Popular culture has propagated the myth that flamingos are graceful creatures. That is just not so.

I am beauty, I am grace. WikiCommons

Let me begin by saying this blog is entirely PG.

Erectile Tissue in their Mouth.

Flamingos have an iconic way of eating: they tip their head entirely upside down and dip their beak into the water. Their tongues suck water into their mouth and separate the food from the water.

Like fleshy straws. WikiCommons

However, when after a 3D model of a flamingo’s head was made, it was noticed that there was masses of erectile tissue on the floor of the mouth and along the base of the tongue.

Turning upside caused blood to flow downwards and pool in the tissue. The tissue expands and appears to stabilize the floor of the mouth. It also aids the tongue in filtering water – this might be the only reason flamingos are able to feed in their unique way.

Legs that go for miles

Spying on a flamboyance (that’s a collective noun) of flamingos you might be shocked to see how many of them would be standing on one leg. Even in water – where you might expect a need for stability – flamingos tend to stand on one leg.

Flamingos are too stylish to look at the camera. WikiCommons

Biologists have often wondered, why?

If you were to balance on one leg, you would quickly find it wasn’t a sustainable activity. A flamingo is functionally built like a mass on sticks – like even the slightest breeze could knock them over. Nature seems to agree; there have been cases of flamingos being blown away like umbrellas.

Two main theories have been proposed, relating to thermoregulation and lower muscle fatigue.

Temperature plays a massive role in energy expenditure. Flickr

Heat loss is a logical explanation – the less contact you have with water, the less heat you lose. As warm-blooded creatures, flamingos lose up to 25 times more heat in water than in air (relative to surface area). Due to the large surface area of a flamingo’s leg, they would lose 40-70% more body heat if they never learned to lift.

To test if muscle fatigue was a factor, a rather macabre experiment was devised. Flamingos are known to sleep on one leg (and most importantly not fall over). It was predicted that on one leg, flamingos were more stable.

Through a morbid puppeteering session, a flamingo cadaver was positioned so it was standing on one leg. It was found it could be stable on one leg without muscle activity. Amazingly the dead flamingo could stand. However, the cadaver could not be positioned stably on two legs – this suggests that greater muscle activity is required to stand on two than one.

I’m pretty sure this one is alive. WikiCommons

It just makes more sense to stand on one leg.

Flamingos are gremlins and/or ballerinas

Another iconic image of a flamingo is its bizarre backwards ‘knees.’ However, the flamingo’s hip and knee are actually hidden up in its body – usually covered by feathers. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, the joint you are seeing is actually its ankle.

This becomes more believable when you look at the skeletal structure. Everything past the ankle is an incredibly long and frankly creepy foot and toe.

The hip and knee bones are much higher than you might think. WikiCommons

This means flamingos spend most of their day on their tiptoes (en point). This may be slightly hard to visualise so let me present a bizarre photo. This baby flamingo hasn’t figured out how to walk properly.

Silently judging. Flickr

This flamingo chick is actually sitting on its feet. Its long, long feet. Honestly I don’t know why public consciousness hasn’t seen the parallels between them and large footed monsters.

Terrifying. This flamingo will stay ghost white for two years. WikiCommons

Maybe that’s why the Queen of Hearts was so willing to use them as croquet mallets.




7 Responses to “Flamingos: Nature’s Croquet Mallet”

  1. Tharaka Kaluarachchi says:

    I can’t believe that’s a whole foot. Great captions on your photos, gave me a good laugh, thanks for the post!

  2. Kellen Lowrie says:

    Cool post! I never knew the joint we see is essentially their ankle. Interesting how the standing on one foot is for heat conservation. Do they also stand on one foot out of the water? Why do they stand around in the water if land is nearby?

  3. Sarah Nielsen says:

    It’s intriguing to think that evolution has, for some reason, decided that standing on one leg is more important than the risk of being blown away in a gust of wind (which seems like it’s a very common occurrence). It’s amazing they can maintain their stability on one leg even while they’re asleep

  4. Matthew says:

    Really entertaining take on revealing the weird secrets of flamingo’s.
    Now ill only ever see them as monstrous birds with odd eating methods.
    Puppets are spooky enough, but that experiment! definitely haunted

  5. William McDonald says:

    Thanks Ruby,

    Flamingos can indeed fly – they just need a running start to gather momentum!

  6. Ruby Lieber says:

    Hi Will,
    Wow, flamingos are very weird creatures! I did not realise that they were actually standing on their toes, it was great to include the image of the skeleton to make this clearer. Also I am very pleased you included a parents guide for this post, you can’t be too careful! Haha
    This may be a silly question but can flamingos fly??

  7. Heather Smillie says:

    Very fun and enjoyable blog!
    Great use of photos!
    I’ve never seen a Flamingo chick before, very very cute!