Flamingos, silly pink birds with long legs and a curved neck. We’ve all seen them, whether at the zoo or the plastic variety in our neighbor’s front yard. They’ve been pictured on countless postcards of tropical locations, but how much do we know about this pink bird and why might one go against their seemingly goofy nature and tout them as being nature’s badass?
Flamingos often seem to epitomize a tropical bird, but they reside in some of the most inhospitable pockets of the Earth. From hypersaline wetlands and high-altitude salt flats to the high Andean plateaus, they thrive in places where few other animals can.
Two of the lesser flamingo’s preferred habitats, Lake Bogoria in Kenya and Lake Natron in Tanzania, are hypersaline and hostile to practically all other forms of life. Lake Natron's water is oversaturated with salt and can reach temperatures of 140 degrees with a pH between 9 and 10.5. It’s so corrosive that it can calcify animal remains, strip ink off printed materials and burn the skin and eyes of other animals. If we humans were to wade in these hypersaline lakes, our skin would strip away. Despite all of this it is the birthplace to 75 percent of the world’s lesser flamingos. The water appears bright red because of the cyanobacteria that photosynthesize in the lake. These algae are dangerous for most animals, but the flamingos can ingest huge amounts without any problems.
The lesser flamingos’ nest on the islands in this lake. How do they do it? They’ve evolved very leathery skin on their legs to tolerate the drastic conditions and can stand in, submerge their heads and drink boiling water. Let that sink in for a minute.
Flamingos’ skin and scales also help them cope at the other end of the inhospitable spectrum. For the Andean and James flamingos who live in the Andes, 15,000 feet above sea level, this adaptation helps when the water freezes at night, trapping them in place while they sleep. Those seemingly puny legs regularly withstand subzero temperatures. They get frozen in place and when the water melts the next day they seemingly go about business as usual.
Do to the lack of predators in the extreme habitats of the lesser, Andean and James flamingos and their incredible ability to survive in harsh conditions, they've been able to thrive in places others cannot. So, the next time you see a flamingo, whether it be at the zoo, in the wild, or as a miniature plastic figure adorning your cocktail glass, know you’re looking at an extreme adventurer and salute their unique survival skills.