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Why can Flamingos Stand on One Leg for So Long?



It’s one of those questions that you can’t help asking yourself when you see flamingos isn’t it? These colourful birds spend a great deal of time perching on one leg and can even sleep in this position. It looks so uncomfortable! But we shouldn’t view other species from the perspective of our own anatomy.


Muscle Fatigue


The anatomy of a flamingo is clearly different to our own. However, until recently, even the experts weren’t entirely sure how flamingos manage their balancing trick and why they don’t get fatigued when they are standing on one leg. It has long been suspected that the solution lay in the muscle fatigue hypothesis. The more muscle that is used in an activity, the more tiring it is and so scientists have presumed that flamingos don’t use muscles in their legs when standing. But how could they prove this theory?

Proving the Theory


Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US came up with an ingenious way to unravel the mystery. They used two dead flamingos obtained from a zoo and attempted to stand them on one leg!

The scientists positioned the bodies on one leg using clamps and measured how well the bodies could hold their weight and maintain balance. They then dissected the birds’ legs to see if muscle control was used. This was compared to data collated from live birds.

Passive Support


The researchers discovered that flamingos can support their weight passively when on one leg. In other words, they do not use muscle activity when standing on one leg. However, they do when standing on two legs. The birds find it less tiring to stand on one leg but how could this be?

The Anatomy of the Flamingo


The single legged posture is more efficient for flamingos. When the birds are standing on one leg their body weight forces the joints of that leg into a fixed arrangement. A group of muscles and ligaments lock into place near the centre of the limb. The birds do not need to flex their muscles to maintain their balance like we do. When the flamingos sleep, their balance actually improves because they exhibit less bodily movement.

Why the Need to Stand on One Leg


The study has revealed evidence of this phenomena for the first time. It is not fully understood why flamingos evolved to stand on one leg. The evolutionary process is always driven by necessity. The need to conserve heat has almost certainly been a factor with flamingos. Birds lose heat through their legs, especially when standing in water as flamingos often are. Standing on one leg would minimise heat loss. But this may not be the whole story! We still have much to learn about these wonderful birds.

Flamingos are fascinating creatures which challenge our understanding of biology and evolution. Many birds stand on one leg but the flamingo is more noticeable due to its stature and bright colour.

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