What with all the neutral furs and muddy-brown feathers, the animal kingdom can be a drab place. Perhaps that’s why flamingos, with their blindingly pink feathers, stand out from the crowd. Why in the world would would natural selection result in an animal evolving into such a loud and fabulous color? It’s as if the bird wants to hail down predators.
Well, as it turns out, flamingos, despite what you’ve been led to believe—and despite what you can clearly see with your own two eyes—aren’t actually pink. That color is is merely the result of diet.
According to Science Focus—an online journal affiliated with the BBC’s magazine, Focus—flamingos are actually born gray. But flamingos love to feast on brine shrimp and blue-green algae, both of which contain canthaxanthin, a natural pink dye. As the birds age and have prolonged exposure to the stuff and the carotenoids it contains, their feathers turn pink; a flamingo’s liver contains enzymes that break down carotenoids into pink and orange pigment molecules that are then absorbed by fats, which are deposited in their feathers, bill, and legs. Ergo, pink flamingo.
Why are some flamingos more pink than others?
Though both shrimp and algae are cornerstones of the flamingo diet, algae tends to have a higher concentration of canthaxanthin. As such, flamingos that eat more algae tend to have brighter feathers. You’ll find these fellas in the Caribbean, where blue-green algae is most plentiful.
On the other hand, flamingos that mostly feed on shrimp (and other small critters that consume the algae) tend to be less pink because the concentration of canthaxanthin-related carotenoids they get is on a much smaller scale than other flamingos. You’ll find these particular flamingos in drier climates—like Lake Nakuru in Kenya.
Strangely enough, flamingos that you spot in zoos or other wildlife refuges often don’t sport the same vivid pink, since keepers have begun adding synthetic canthaxanthin, rather than the real natural pink stuff, to flamingo diets. So, if you’re really keen to see storybook flamingos, book yourself a flight to Nassau.
Hold on. Can carotenoids turn me pink?
Yes, carotenoids can affect the skin hue of creatures not limited to the flamingo. For instance, the carotenoids in canthaxanthin are actually the same pigments that cause shrimp to turn from gray to pink when boiled. What’s more, these same carotenoids exist in foods that humans eat—carrots, sweet potatoes, mangos, and apricots are all prime examples. Fortunately, though, since most humans maintain a more balanced diet than the flamingo (we’d hope), you have nothing to worry about.
However, if you’re among the contingent of folks who have tried taking canthaxanthin pills to get a sunless tan, you may be in some trouble. According to the Food & Drug Administration (who hasn’t approved such pills, by the way), your skin won’t turn pink. It may, however, turn a bizarre, burnt orange—a color that even the most radiantly pink flamingo couldn’t pull off. And for more amazing trivia from the wild, here are 37 Animal Oddities That Prove Mother Nature Is Crazy Weird.
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