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Nature

Why Flamingos Stand On One Leg

author

Katy Evans

Managing Editor

clockMay 24 2017, 15:30 UTC

The reason it looks so easy is because, for them, it is. Natalia Barsukova/Shutterstock

Flamingos are basically the models of the animal kingdom. They’re tall, slim, a fabulous color, and know how to strike a pose.

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Now, scientists think they have unraveled the mysteries of why and how the feathery pink wonders assume this iconic position: It turns out flamingos can conserve more energy standing on one leg than two.  

Researchers from the US discovered that flamingos’ legs have a mechanism that fixes into place when their legs are straight, meaning they don’t actually expend any muscular activity once they're in place. 

Professor Young-Hui Chang of Georgia Institute of Technology and Dr Lena H Ting of Emory University, Atlanta, suspected that the birds’ legs might feature a characteristic that meant their joints could lock into place, but when they studied two donated cadavers from Birmingham Zoo, they couldn't find anything.

However, when Chang picked the bird up by its leg and held it upright, the leg fixed into place, became rigid and held.  

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“That was the ‘Aha!’ moment when we knew we were on to something special,” Chang told Discover. “If a dead flamingo could do it, then it is probably available for live birds to do.”

Strangely, they found the dead flamingos could not hold the pose when they tried to stand them up on two legs, which led them to suspect it takes more effort for the birds’ muscles to use two legs than just one.

They then studied the balance behaviors of eight live juvenile flamingos from Zoo Atlanta by placing them on a force-plate, basically fancy bathroom scales, and waiting for them to fall asleep. They discovered that when the flamingos were less active, they swayed less on one leg. In fact, when they fell asleep, their postural sway was seven times lower than when they were active.

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Their results, published in the journal Biology letters, suggest that the flamingos rely on a passive mechanism for support, not an active one that uses muscular effort.

This seems counterintuitive because as humans we typically think standing on one leg and remaining balanced is rather difficult, requiring a lot of energy, control, and effort. However, as flamingos use their legs more for prolonged standing than running around, for them it is much more energy efficient.

Though the researchers say they need to do further tests to understand the mechanism better, their study could have many practical applications. It could explain why other birds, such as herons and storks, often do the same thing, as well as have an influence on the development of many-legged robots and prosthetic limbs in the future.

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The good old BBC demystifying the flamingos’ reputation for grace and elegance and revealing them as the comedians they really are.  


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