Flamingo's One-Legged Mystery, (Somewhat) Solved

Scientists say the birds expend less energy on a single leg than on 2
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 24, 2017 11:30 AM CDT
Flamingo's One-Legged Mystery, (Somewhat) Solved
How do they do it?   (Getty Images/yanta)

Ever wonder why flamingos stand on one leg? So did two Georgia scientists, and their research has found the birds appear to expend less energy when they do so, the BBC reports. A study published in the Biology Letters journal examined both live and dead flamingos and explains how living ones appear to put out no active muscle effort while on one leg, but need that active muscle force when on two. When study co-authors Young-Hui Chang of Georgia Tech and Emory University's Lena Ting headed to Atlanta's zoo, they even noticed that as flamingos dozed off while teetering on one leg, they seemed to become more stable, not less, per the Atlantic, which also offers an explainer about why the birds' legs seem to bend in funny directions. Chang and Ting examined two euthanized flamingos, and that's when they had what Chang says was their "lightbulb moment."

They discovered they could even make these erstwhile flamingos stand on one leg with zero outside support, thanks to what they call a "passive gravitational stay mechanism" that's achievable if the leg is bent at a particular angle. Trying to switch the cadavers to a sustainable two-legged pose didn't work. The position necessary to achieve the one-legged stance isn't some locking of the joints, either: Chang notes that there's a lock in one direction, but "flexibility" in the other, when the pose is engaged. "We call it a 'stay' rather than a 'lock,'" he tells the BBC. "It's more akin to a doorstop." Another researcher not involved in the study notes this research partly answers the how, but not the when, where, or why of this feat, with his own team suspecting the birds may do so to conserve heat. (A rare black flamingo, spotted in Cyprus.)

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