Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Phoenicopteridae

Who doesn't know flamingos? The combination of long neck, long legs, and pink and red plumage make them amongst the most easily recognized of birds alive today. They make up the family Phoenicopteridae (from the Ancient Greek words for 'crimson wing'... although you could interpret the root word 'phoenix' - Φοῖνιξ - as the mythical bird of the same name), and most taxonomists place this family in its own order, the Phoenicopteriformes. Others include it in the same order as storks, herons, and ibises, the Ciconiiformes, but since that order sometimes includes falcons and other seemingly unrelated fowl, that's no surprise.

There are six (sometimes five... why is taxonomy so confusing?) species in three genera (sometimes one genus!). The genera all share the root 'Phoenico-', but have different suffixes. Modern day flamingos are distributed in southern Europe, much of Africa, southwestern and southern Asia, the West Indies, and Central and South America. South America boasts the most species, whilst only one is found in Europe.



Greater flamingo
Phoenicopterus roseus Pallas, 1811
Phoenicopteridae; Phoenicopteriformes; Aves; Chordata
Colour pencil drawing
May 2010

The greater flamingo is, as its name suggests, the largest of the six extant flamingos. It is distributed across southern Europe and Asia, as well as most of Africa. It is an inhabitant of coastal and interior wetlands, either permanent or temporary, taking advantage of concentrations of water during dry seasons to find their food. Like all flamingos, greater flamingos have a specialised bill with lamellae (flat plates) which act as a filter to separate small aquatic invertebrates and algae from the water, much as baleen whales do.



Greater flamingo
Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Gloucestershire
September 2009

The colour of wild flamingos varies, but there is usually some pink or red present in the plumage of all adults. Greater flamingos have the least red in their plumage, although their wing coverts are a stunning crimson, hence the generic name. The specific name, 'roseus', means 'pink', which describes the effect of red and white feathers in close proximity rather well.



Immature greater flamingo
Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Gloucestershire
September 2009

Young flamingos are born with a grey/brown plumage, not acquiring their distinctive coloration until adulthood. The parents of a flamingo chick will feed their young on a regurgitated fluid, similar in colour and texture to milk, which is produced in the crop (the forepart of the stomach used to hold food before regurgitation). This is not unique to flamingos amongst birds; pigeons are also known to produce 'milk', and who knows, perhaps some non-avian dinosaurs did too?



Caribbean flamingo
Phoenicopterus ruber Linnaeus, 1758
Phoenicopteridae; Phoenicopteriformes; Aves; Chordata
Colour pencil drawing
May 2010

The Caribbean, or American, flamingo, is a very colourful bird. It is not so much pink as hot pink - the specific name, 'ruber', is Latin for 'red'. It is often considered to belong to the same species as the greater flamingo, but this species does not occur in the Old World. It lives on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, many Caribbean islands and the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Venezuela. Its natural occurrence in Florida is debated: it is often considered an iconic bird of that state, although it probably only occurs there as escapees or vagrants from Cuba and other islands.



Caribbean flamingo
Jardin des Plantes, Paris
January 2010

Like the greater flamingo, Caribbean flamingos are pretty much restricted to coastal environments, with a preference for strongly saline waters where their preferred food, the brine shrimp (Artemia - most familiar to lay-people as the sea monkeys you can buy as dried eggs, or to fish-keepers as a common food for tropical fishes).




Chilean flamingo
Phoenicopterus chilensis Molina, 1782
Phoenicopteridae; Phoenicopteriformes; Aves; Chordata
Colour pencil drawing
May 2010

The third and final member of the genus Phoenicopterus is the most southerly distributed of them all. The Chilean flamingo occurs in temperate wetlands of southern South America, right to the tip of the continent. It is about the same size as the Caribbean flamingo, but much more muted in plumage colour. It is more pink, however, than the greater flamingo, and can be differentiated from its congeners by its grey legs with red 'knees'*, and bill, of which the terminal half is black.

* The part of the leg which appears to be the knee is in fact anatomically the ankle: the part which looks like the shin is the foot, while the 'foot' is really just toes. The thigh (femur) is obscured by the bird's feathers. Think of a chicken drumstick, which is the tibia and fibula, the part of the leg above the 'knee'. Sorry if I have completely confused you.



Chilean flamingos
Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Gloucestershire
September 2009

The preferred habitat of the Chilean flamingo is brackish lakes from sea level up to about 4500 m into the Andes Mountains. Chilean flamingos have become established in parts of Europe, as the climate of continental Europe most closely matches that of its native land than any of the other species.



Andean flamingo
Phoenicoparrus andinus Philippi, 1854
Phoenicopteridae; Phoenicopteriformes; Aves; Chordata
Colour pencil drawing
May 2010

The genus Phoenicoparrus ('crimson bird of ill omen') contains two species endemic to the mountains of South America. The larger of the two is the Andean flamingo, found in the alpine plateau known as the puna shared between Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. Its pale yellow legs and bill distinguish it from the puna flamingo. The colour of the Andean flamingo's plumage is a rosy pink, which reminds me of raspberry milkshake.



Andean flamingo
Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Gloucestershire
September 2009

The two flamingo species of the genus Phoenicoparrus have narrower bills which are believed to aid in finding smaller food items than the other species. Food must be scarce in the alpine deserts of South America, and being able to filter out the smallest of nutrients from the brine must be advantageous to the Andean and puna flamingos.



Puna flamingo
Phoenicoparrus jamesi Sclater, 1886
Phoenicopteridae; Phoenicopteriformes; Aves; Chordata
Colour pencil drawing
May 2010

The puna, or James's, flamingo is the smallest of the South American flamingos, growing up to less than a metre tall (approximately three feet). It is restricted to the puna grassland of the high Andes, and are often found in mixed groups with the previous two species. In order for this to occur successfully in such a harsh habitat, they must be able to exploit different food sources. Being the smallest of the trio, the puna flamingo has the smallest bill, and thus is able to extract the smallest of diatoms (single-celled plants) from the brine.



Puna flamingo
Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Gloucestershire
September 2009

The puna flamingo has bright red legs and a black-tipped banana-yellow bill with a dark red face. It is amongst the most threatened of the flamingo species due to its remote location and small populations. It was once believed extinct, until a small breeding population was located in the 1950s. It is now considered 'near threatened' by the IUCN, but we all know that doesn't mean it's out of the woods yet.



Lesser flamingo
Phoeniconaias minor Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1798
Phoenicopteridae; Phoenicopteriformes; Aves; Chordata
Colour pencil drawing
May 2010

The lesser flamingo is the sole member of the genus Phoeniconaias ('crimson nymph'), and is found in saline lagoons across east Africa and southern Asia. It is the smallest flamingo, standing at under a metre tall. Flocks of lesser flamingos are reputedly a shocking sight; they are amongst the most numerous of birds in the Rift Valley of Africa, concentrating where the water yields the most planktonic food.



Lesser flamingo amongst other species
Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Gloucestershire
September 2009

Lesser flamingos have somewhat more crimson plumage in the wild than most of the other species, but in captivity, due to a lack of carotenes (red, orange, and yellow pigments in foods which give the birds metabolise to create their own pigment) in their food, are a more muted pink. The eye is yellow, the bill is dark red and black, and the legs are crimson. Lesser flamingos are known to revel in the caustic lakes of the African Rift Valley, such as Lake Natron (so called because of its very high concentrations of sodium salts, including natron itself, which is a carbonate) - these waters support no other life except the prey items and the flamingos themselves. The brine is caustic enough to dissolve human flesh - with this in mind, the flamingo must be one of the most resilient of all birds.

2 comments:

Zach said...

Are there are fossil taxa known?

Very nice drawings, by the way.

Mo Hassan said...

Thanks :)

Apparently the Phoenicopteridae fossil record goes right back to the Eocene, with species attributed to Phoenicopterus in Oligocene to Pleistocene Europe and North America. There is another family, the Palaelodidae, in the Phoenicopteriformes, which are of a similar build to flamingos but became extinct by the mid-Pleistocene.