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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Specimen of the Week 329: Flamingo skull

By Nadine Gabriel, on 9 February 2018

Hello, it’s Nadine Gabriel with another Specimen of the Week. This is a skull of an American flamingo, one of the six species of flamingo and the only species that naturally inhabits North America. The fiery-coloured plumage of this long-legged bird is sure to brighten up the dark winter days, so read on to find out more…

Skull of an American flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber LDUCZ-Y147

Fiery birds

The American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is a large wading bird and, relative to its body size, it has the longest legs and neck of all birds. Its common name comes from the Spanish/Portuguese word “flamengo”, which means flame-coloured. The genus name, Phoenicopterus, comes from the Greek word “phoinikopteros” which means blood-red feathered [1]. Their rosy plumage is the result of their diet which is rich in alpha and beta carotenoid pigments. In captivity, flamingos tend to be a dull pale colour but sometimes they are fed carotenoid pellets to maintain their characteristic colour [2].

A flock of flamingos at Whipsnade Zoo, England. Image by Martin Pettitt via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0


American Flamingos live in lagoons, mudflats and inland lakes throughout Central and South America. They once lived in Florida, but the arrival of Europeans meant that they were hunted for their feathers and eggs, and by the end of the 1800s, they vanished from the state [3]. However, flocks of flamingos do occasionally visit Florida. In 2014, 147 flamingos were seen in a stormwater treatment facility in Lake Okeechobee. It’s unknown whether these were wild or captive individuals [4].

The distribution of the American flamingo. Image by RI123JH via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Filter feeders

Flamingos feed by using lamellae (bristle-like structures) on the inside of their beak to filter and trap food. When feeding, flamingos hold their head upside down in the water and use their tongue to pump water in through the front of their beak and then out through the sides – here’s a video showing their feeding technique. Flamingos feed on algae, shrimp (rich in carotenoid pigments), molluscs and insect larvae, and are able to filter particles 1-4 mm in size [5]. Since they filter and drink water with a high salinity, they use a salt gland in their beak to remove excess salt from their body via nasal openings [3].

A leg to stand on

Flamingos are famous for their one-legged pose (the unipedal stance). Some scientists believe that standing on one leg helps them to retain body heat because birds lose large quantities of heat through their legs [6]. A recent study has shown that the unipedal stance is actually more stable than standing on two legs. Scientists observed flamingos and found that they sway less when standing on one leg. Furthermore, it’s possible for dead flamingos to remain upright on one leg; when balanced on two legs, they are more likely to fall over. When flamingos stand with one leg directly under their body’s centre, the leg joint locks in place and prevents the knee from moving therefore it requires less energy to stand on one leg [7].

The classic flamingo pose. Image by Drew Avery via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0


Nadine Gabriel is the Museum Intern at the Grant Museum of Zoology


[1] Flamingo Etymology: https://www.etymonline.com/word/flamingo
[2] What Do Flamingos and Salmon Have in Common?: http://www.webexhibits.org/causesofcolor/7D.html
[3] American Flamingo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_flamingo
[4] Wild Flamingos Return to Florida: http://www.audubon.org/news/wild-flamingos-return-florida
[5] Pollen Filtration from Water Inspired by a Flamingo: http://www.blogionik.org/pollen-filtration-from-water-inspired-by-a-flamingo/ 
[6] Steen I. and Steen J. B., 1965. The Importance of the Legs in the Thermoregulation of Birds. Acta Physiologica, 63(3), 285-291
[7] Chang Y. H. and Ting L. H., 2017. Mechanical Evidence that Flamingos Can Support Their Body on One Leg with Little Active Muscular Force. Biology letters, 13(5)

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