Flaming Flamingoes

Derived from the Spanish word flamenco, via a Latin word meaning "flaming," the name flamingo is directly linked to the striking appearance and unusual habitat of the pink -- or flame-colored -- bird. Living on volcanic lakes, some of which continue to pump up hot steam and sulphur, the flamingo strongly recalls the ancient myth of the phoenix, which occurs in a number of different cultures. The story describes an immortal -- and, by all accounts, majestic -- bird that's consumed by flames, only to rise again from the ashes. Add to this the reddish hue of the long, slender flamingo, and it's no coincidence that the flamingo is associated with fire. It's their specialized diet, in fact, consisting of the blue-green algae, spirulina, that gives them their flaming, pink-tinted appearance. Particularly abundant in the alkaline lakes of the Rift Valley, spirulina makes up the entire diet of the lesser flamingo. Greater flamingoes are slightly paler because they get their pigmentation second-hand by dining on other, larger organisms that feed on the algae.

The flamingo is pretty fabulous in its design and is one of few creatures that has evolved to specifically survive the caustic volcanic lake environment. The secret lies in their beaks, which are equipped with a unique filter-feeding system that enables them to skim the microscopic algae from the water's surface. They swing their upside-down heads from side to side or swish the water with their fat tongues and siphon the lake water through their filters to trap algae, separating the minute organisms from the deadly soup in which they grow. They can filter as many as 20 beakfuls of algae-rich water in a single second. This unique feeding system gives flamingoes a certain security: While they must watch out for predators such as jackals or eagles, they compete with no other animals for food. Flamingoes are, however, preyed upon by Maribou storks and also by fish eagles, and around Lake Bogoria, migrant Steppe eagles from Eastern Europe and Russia have even learned to pirate flamingoes from the fish eagles.

Flamingoes have yet another behavior that sets them apart, and it's one that is as hard to explain as it is interesting to watch: They dance. The birds will posture and signal with their wings, bow and bend their necks, run back and forth in a group, and then suddenly take flight, wheeling around the edges of the lake in a mass formation. It's one of the more peculiar scenes in the natural world, and scientists remain uncertain of whether it's a mating ritual, a means of burning up excess energy, or simply an exercise in fun.

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