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pretty in pink: flamingos apply makeup to impress others

For the past two years (you already know where is this going), most of us science communicators, researchers, and/or scientists have been heavily focused on a single theme – coronavirus. Hundreds of stories, thousands of words spent — on a single effing virus.

So, I’m thinking about some good spirit evocation and manifesting some good, pinker, glittery vibes.  I wish us all to write about cute animals in the coming months, count it as a proper detox.

I invite you to follow the blog of my fellow sci-comm Jelena Kalinić Quantum of Science, which was the direct inspiration for this post.

Shall we start?

Make flamingos hip again! These flamboyant birds, as it turns out, apply natural make-up oils to their feathers to stand out and be attract mates! Research done by a team of scientists from Spain is the first to demonstrate that flamingos transfer the color pigments from the gland near their tails for pure ’beauty’ & cosmetics reasons.

In the past decades, science had an assumption that flamingo feathers change color only when it fades from UV exposure or are unintentionally stained by organic materials.

But while studying greater flamingos at the Doñana Biological Research Station in Spain, ornithologist Juan Amat realized that something else was going on.

“We noticed that immediately after chicks were born, [adult] flamingos lost their pink color,” Amat said.

Jelena, on her blog, mentioned a new Argentinian study on the same topic published in September in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

Cool, so, we already know that flamingos get their color from compounds called carotenoids, which the birds absorb from eating algae and small crustaceans. So, why are they actually fading?

Ornithologists found that the plumage of flamingos was more colorful during periods in which the birds were displaying in groups and almost completely faded during the rest of the year. A pale flamingo look occurred shortly after the birds started to breed. So, now we are getting somewhere. Why is this happening?

Well, in short, flamingos 👏🏼 have 👏🏼 a 👏🏼 makeup 👏🏼 routine!

The more vibrant pink is, the better.

How are they applying their natural makeup?

Flamingos produce oil in glands near their tails. This booty gland is called the uropygial gland and its main function is to improve the longevity of feathers. It also keeps plumage waterproof. But, scientists had a sneaking suspicion that flamingos might also be using this oil substance for — FEATHER COLORING.

These stylish birds are rubbing carotenoid-rich oil from the booty gland to their feathers by rubbing their head on their neck, breast, and back feathers.

As we mentioned previously, rubbing is more frequent during periods when the birds were showing off in groups named flamboyance (!). As they took care of their baby chicklets, flamingos did not have the makeup routine going on.

Both teams from Spain and Argentina conclude: Pink plumage color “manipulation” and enhancement have the key role in improving sexual selection and signaling in flamingos.

“Our findings in flamingos have important implications for the theories of sexual selection and signaling, highlighting the key role of the manipulation of plumage color by the birds themselves to improve signal efficacy.

Sounds familiar <3

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