October 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Andean Flamingos

Pink bodied and yellow legged, these Andean Flamingos sift through shallow silt at sunset in the Atacama desert. Flamingos are filter-feeders, mainly eating microscopic algae that they filter from the water with their uniquely structured upside-down beak. Unlike most other birds, the flamingo has a narrower top beak than bottom, and its top jaw is not firmly attached to the skull – the whole beak is effectively inverted. By swinging its head from side to side and using its tongue as a pump, the flamingo collects particles denser than water, such as algae.

Though the setting above looks serene, the Andean Flamingo – one of the rarest in the world – is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable, likely to become endangered unless its situation improves. Its main threat comes from the extensive borax mining in the Atacama, which severely impacts their natural habitat. Though apparently non-toxic to humans, borax has been found to produce skeletal and heart defects in local flamingo populations.

Image: Juan Casasbuenas