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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The 'Other' Flamingoes

I think it's fair to say that, for most people, flamingoes suggest Africa, and with pretty good cause. Even if only gleaned from the telly, most of us have pretty powerful mind images of millions of breeding flamingoes in the great salt lakes of the rift valley of the east, though for me at least the image of hundreds of flamingoes adorning the Strandfontein sewage works in Cape Town, with Table Mountain as a backdrop, is an abiding one. However flamingoes - Greater and Lesser - can pop up almost anywhere in Africa outside of the dry northern hinterland.
Lesser Flamingoes  Phoeniconaias minor, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
However they are also an important part of the landscape of parts of the Americas too, though in North America only as far north in general as eastern Mexico. Indeed, there are more American species than African ones - four all told. For those unfamiliar with these American birds there is another surprise too - while most of us probably think of flamingoes as warm weather birds, they live way down to nearly 50 degrees south in Patagonia, or up to nearly 5000 metres above sea level in the central Andes.  
Chilean Flamingoes Phoenicopterus chilensis, above and below,
Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia.

Chilean Flamingoes belong to the same genus as the Greater Flamingo of Africa (and southern Europe and southern Asia), though the two Andean species - Andean and James's or Puna Flamingoes - are assigned to a different genus Phoenicoparras.
Andean Flamingo P. andinus, Atacama Desert, northern Chile.
Presumably the ancestors of American flamingoes arrived relatively recently and the two high mountain species evolved in that very different world - or perhaps their ancestor arrived first, and the Chilean's more recently. Given the existence of seven million year old fossil flamingo footprints in the Andes I suspect the latter. (At least I keep coming across that 'fact' but haven't yet found the original source of it.) I don't suppose their exact origin matters much, though I'm always intrigued by such things. 

The fourth American species is more conventional in living in tropical and subtropical areas, especially around the Caribbean and in the Galapagos. Traditionally it was regarded as a subspecies of the Greater Flamingo, but more and more it is now seen as a species in its own right, though still closely related - called, without much imagination, American Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber.
American Flamingoes at sunset, Floreana, Galapagos.
Overall we don't really know where to 'put' flamingoes; they are an ancient group, with affinities to other waterbirds, notably grebes, ducks herons and other waders, but having been around for some 30 million years this is not surprising. The general - but not universal - view now is that they are separate enough to merit their own Order, Phoenicopteriformes. 

They certainly have some very special characteristics, not least being their extraordinary approach to feeding. Try to imagine (but only imagine it, I'd recommend!) eating with your head upside down, so your bill - or equivalent - is pretty much horizontal.

American Flamingo feeding, Isabela, Galapagos.
What the bird in this photo is doing it to separating water and unwanted muddy particles from food items using a large, fatty, highly sensitive tongue with numerous fleshy protuberances (lamellae), complemented by a keeled bill also fringed with fleshy lamellae. The tongue is used as a pump which beats from five to 20 times a minute to suck in beakfuls of muddy water and wrigglies and to expel unwanted gunk via a complex set of movements.

This diet, comprising algae, small fish and invertebrates, leads to another spectacular aspect of flamingoes, their glorious colour.
American Flamingo, Isabela, Galapagos.
In terms of its colour, this bird is definitely what it eats. Its glowing reds and pink are due to carotenoids, derived entirely from its food, and in particular the blue-green algae and shrimps.
In captivity flamingoes on artificial diets gradually fade to grey - which is also the colour of flamingo chicks. Zoos overcome this by adding canthaxanthin to their diets, a carotenoid pigment found naturally in mushrooms, algae, bacteria and some fish - and less naturally in (mostly illegal) 'tanning pills'.
Chilean Flamingoes, east of Coyaique near the Chile-Argentina border in the central Andes.
The striking black wing tips are due to melanin, which confers resistance to wear and is thus found
in the flight feathers of many birds.
And while on the subject of flamingo food, in all the world of birds only flamingoes and pigeons have evolved (quite independently of each other) a 'milk' on which to feed their young. Now you're right of course - it's not really milk, which is by definition a mammalian trick. However, like 'real' milk both pigeon and flamingo 'milk' is a fatty protein produced by glands; that of flamingoes is fattier and has less protein than that of pigeons. Rather than exuding it from external glands, both flamingoes and pigeons produce their 'milk' internally - from the upper digestive tract and the crop respectively. And, both can do what no mammal can - produce it by both parents.

I am a massive fan of flamingoes - as you may have guessed - and I regret that I only missed by a miserable couple of million years the chance to enjoy them in Australia. We had at least seven species in four genera, including our own endemic genus Phoeniconotius, and the ubiquitous Greater Flamingo. It was only the great drying which began about two million years back which led to their extinction, by eliminating the vast inland wetlands.

Nonetheless, my self-centred regret won't bring them back and it's yet another reason to explore other parts of this wonderful world. Next time you go flamingo-spotting, remember the South American option too...
American Flamingoes at sunset, Floreana, Galapagos.
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2 comments:

Susan said...

A couple of years ago when we had a particularly hard winter down south the flamigoes in the Camargue were in dire straits. The wardens had to go out in the ice and snow and bundle them up and warm up their feet. They were dying because they couldn't get warm enough and it was standing in icy water that was causing the problem I seem to remember. I saw some photos of flamingoes stretched out in the back of vans (probably with hot water bottles on their feet).

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