There is a surprising physical explanation for why flamingos stand on one leg.

Kicks Off With a Bang on June 23, 2022

Generally, you can spot a flock of healthy flamingos if you keep an eye out for them: they'll be standing erect on one leg, be a vibrant shade of pink, and only move when they need to feed, bathe, or move. Flamingos in the foreground are standing on their hind legs, indicating that they are about to feed. Flamingos walking around on land, both those with and without legs, are interacting socially in the background.
Credit: (NachtHacker/Pixabay)

One of Earth's greatest wonders is the incredible variety of plant, fungal, and animal life that inhabits it. There are many things to marvel at in the world, whether you're on land, in the air, or at sea. Even though there is an overwhelming amount of variety among Earth's thriving organisms, we can learn about how each species fits into a specific ecological niche by analyzing how it has adapted its physiology and behavior.

The flamingo is one of the most unexpected creatures to be found in the wild. Physique-wise, they're definitely out of the ordinary. There aren't many animals that look like flamingos. Their long, skinny legs, bright pink coloring, long, flexible necks, and disproportionately large bills set them apart. However, flamingos are most well-known for a peculiar behavior: they are frequently observed standing on only one leg. An explanation can be found in science, but it has to do with physics and not biology.

flamingo one leg
When a group of flamingos stands on dry land, they typically only use one leg at a time. Flamingos have an advantage in heat retention when standing on one leg compared to when standing on two legs when in water, but this behavior serves no clear purpose when on land, save that, in the absence of feathers, keeping that leg tucked in may keep it warmer.
Image via AlkeMade/Pixabay

Consider yourself a flamingo for a moment. Your safety necessitates that you travel in a group, or "flock." Because of your long, skinny legs, you can stand in water as deep as your legs are long without getting wet or cold. With each splash of your webbed feet, you can agitate the marine life living on the ocean floor. To supplement your diet of stirred-up algae, crustaceans, larvae, and small fish, your long, flexible neck and bizarre bill, in which the lower portion is longer and thicker than the upper portion, are perfect.

You'll always find a flamingo with both feet in the water when it's actively feeding, whether that means stirring the water or sticking its head down to the bottom to search for small, tasty morsels. Flamingos, in contrast to diving feeders like ducks, always feed with both feet firmly planted on the ground, regardless of their location.

Flamingos, depicted here with their peculiarly shaped and specially adapted bills probing the water for food, never stand on one leg while they eat. While moving one foot to manipulate or stir up a potential food source, the flamingo must keep the other foot on the ground below the water so that it can attempt to bite it at a critical moment.
(Credit: J M Images by Garg/Wikimedia Commons)

Some rather elementary science can account for many of the biological and behavioral characteristics we attribute to the flamingo that we otherwise cannot explain.

  • The flamingo's long legs and neck work together because the survival of the fittest dictates that organisms that can forage successfully in both shallow and deep water without getting wet would be more likely to survive and reproduce. Feeding by muddying the water and then digging with their beaks is a survival skill for flamingos when food in the shallows is scarce.
  • The crustaceans and algae that make up the bulk of a flamingo's diet provide them with the carotenoid pigments that give the birds their distinctive pink to red color. Whiter, less colorful flamingos result from a lack of the pigment in their diet.
Depending on what they eat, the greater flamingo, Phoenicpterus roseus, can be a white color instead of the typical pink or red. A group of flamingos has chosen to spend the cooler parts of the day on land, possibly to conserve body heat. The flamingos are actively feeding when they can be seen with their beaks in the water and their heads and necks dipping below the surface.
Image by Elsemargriet/Pixabay.

Flamingos are rarely seen out of the water, even when they aren't feeding. Because of their high degree of sociality, flamingos tend to flock together when one of them makes a move toward the water. Because flamingos are such strong swimmers, they can easily travel across any body of water to reach land where they can perch and feed.

Hundreds or even thousands of flamingos will perform complex choreographed displays that include head-flapping, wing-salutes, twist preens, and even marching in unison. Additionally, flamingos spend a lot of time preening, a behavior in which oil secreted from the base of the tail is distributed throughout the feathers. (Flamingos can spend three times as much time preening as other waterfowl. Even when bathing in the shallow freshwater in which they almost exclusively engage, they completely submerge their bodies.

bathing flamingo
It is impossible to predict whether a flamingo will stand on one leg, two legs, or some other twisted position while it is bathing, as it only does so in shallow waters. Bathing flamingos, like this one from the Moscow Zoo, are fully committed to soaking wet from head to toe, and they do so in a universally awkward, uncoordinated display.
(Photo by орун ндре/Wikimedia Commons)

A flamingo in a swimming pool may look like it's in terrible danger to an untrained eye. After all, despite the flamingo spending the vast majority of its life in the water, sightings are extremely uncommon:

  • swimming,
  • walking,
  • adding confusion,
  • feeding by submerging its beak,
  • in a self-washing apparatus

You're more likely to see a flamingo in the water (or on land) standing on one leg, with the other tucked tightly against its feathered body; this is the flamingo's signature posture.

Many flamingos, including this Andean variety, are seen standing erect on one leg for upwards of an hour at a time while foraging in their natural environment. The pink color of the flamingo indicates a diet high in carotenoid pigments, and the fact that the flamingo in the background is standing on one leg shows that it is trying to lose as little body heat as possible while still foraging in the water. Agricultural Products
(Photo by Trevor Rickard/Getty Images)

You're probably confused by this, and you wouldn't be alone. Given the flamingo's many unique biological and behavioral adaptations, you might be confused as to why an animal would choose to stand on one leg rather than two.

However, this is not due to genetics but rather physics. Getting into a pool on a hot summer day is a great example of the science of thermodynamics and heat transfer, and you've probably noticed this effect for yourself. After all, both humans and flamingos are warm-blooded, with core temperatures that are higher than the ambient temperature even in cold environments.

Every parent has seen this before: a group of kids who have been submerged in water too cold for too long. Small, warm-blooded animals in such an environment will lose a lot of heat to the water. The common advice to "get out of the pool in order to warm up" is supported by both experience and the laws of physics; heat transfer rates are 25 times greater between the human body and water than between the human body and air.
photo by Dustin Cox/flickr

If you are a typical human with a temperature of about 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), If you, at a certain temperature (say, 6 °F), were to stand naked in the open air, your body heat would be lost to the environment at a certain rate. Since the flamingo's body temperature is about 42 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit) — a degree higher than the average human's — the flamingo will lose heat more quickly than a human would because the difference between its temperature and the air around it is larger in the case of the flamingo.

Submerging your entire body in water, even if the water and air are the same temperature, will cause you to lose heat at a rate 25 times faster than it would if you were breathing air. Ultimately, the rate at which heat is dissipated from a hot source into a cold environment is determined by the magnitude of the temperature difference between the two, the size of the area of contact between the source and the environment, and the efficiency of heat transfer.

The rate of heat loss from the body of a warm-blooded animal at the air/water interface is 25 times greater in water than in air for the same temperature difference. It takes twice as long for a human to cool off when immersed in water as when exposed to air alone; when walking or feeding, flamingos only submerge their feet.
Image via Bunches and Bits/Flickr, user "Karina"

If a person were to put one foot in a body of water up to the ankle, they would be submerging about 4% of their total surface area. The rate of heat transfer between a human body and air is slower than that between a human body and a If the water and air are the same temperature, you will lose the same amount of heat through your submerged foot as you would through the rest of your body.

What if, instead, you were a flamingo? When a flamingo is standing in the water on two legs, its body heat can be lost much more quickly than if it were standing on dry land alone due to the enormous surface area of its webbed feet.

However, if a flamingo can learn to stand on one leg instead of two while swimming, it can greatly improve its ability to retain body heat.

pink flamingos
Wading, preening, and foraging for food are common activities in which you might spot a flock of pink flamingos in shallow, warm bodies of water. Many of the flamingos depicted here are more of a grayish white rather than the more typical pink or red due to a lack of carotenoid pigments in their food supply. However, they are able to reduce their body heat loss by nearly half simply by adopting the behavior of standing on one foot rather than two.
Credit: (Gayulo/Pixabay)

A flamingo with two legs in the water will lose between 140 and 170 percent more body heat than an identical flamingo standing on one leg in the water. The flamingo that succeeds in learning the preferred behavior—standing on one leg—has more time to spend in the water, where it can feed, groom, explore, and so on.

Simply put, a flamingo that masters the art of standing on one leg has a greater chance of survival and further evolution than its two-legged counterparts. It's possible that flamingos don't have enough intelligence to realize that it's crucial to stand on one leg when in the water but not so much when in the air; instead, it seems to be a behavior that flamingos engage in regardless of their surroundings. And, as far as science can tell, standing on one leg isn't a genetic trait but rather something learned from an early age and instilled in her young by the flamingo mother.

baby flamingo
Flamingo chicks observe the adult birds in their flocks from a very young age, at which point they begin to learn the appropriate behaviors of flamingos. In this scene, a juvenile flamingo is performing for a group of adults as they practice the dance routine they will use during the coming mating season. Preening, bathing, dancing, and standing on one foot are just some of the earliest learned behaviors in a flamingo's life that are passed down from parent to offspring.
(Image via flickr/Tambako The Jaguar)

It seems that the flamingo's success is not hindered by the fact that they spend a lot of time standing on one leg, even when doing so isn't optimal (on dry land). Behavioral adaptations are often clumsy, inelegant solutions in biology, such as how the 'advantageous' behavior of standing on one leg only provides an advantage while in the water. However, maybe the flamingo's balancing act on land is more beneficial than we think; maybe this is the ideal behavior.

The fact that the physics that governs the biology of every warm-blooded animal can help us make sense of certain aspects of behavioral ecology is a spectacular aspect of our reality. Although genetics play a huge role in shaping evolution, learned behaviors can prove decisive at times. Flamingos' peculiar one-legged stance defies all attempts at genetic explanation. For that You can get back to your house using only physics.

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