Flamingos have always enjoyed a special recognition for their vibrant pink colour. Indeed the word ‘flamingo‘ derives from the Latin word ‘flamenco’, meaning ‘flame-coloured’… but why are flamingos pink?
One important point about the flamingo’s colouring is that their pink colour is not a hereditary trait. No chicks of any flamingo species are born pink. Instead, newly hatched flamingos are always a dull grey or white colour and turn pink through the first couple of years of their lives.
So, if being bright pink is not part of their DNA, why do flamingos turn pink?
What do flamingos eat?
‘You are what you eat’ is an apt expression when applied to flamingos.
Flamingos live by lakes, wetlands, and swamps, filter-feeding to obtain their diet, primarily made up of insect larvae, algae, and small crustaceans and invertebrates, particularly brine shrimp and mollusks. To feed they hold their beaks upside down, suck water in at the front of the bill, and pump it out through the sides. While pumping water they use their lamellae (plates that act like tiny filters) to sieve out algae and water creatures to eat.
Their algae and crustacean diet contains extremely high concentrations of beta carotene and other carotenoids – an organic protein. In the flamingos’ digestive system, enzymes in the liver break the carotenoids down into pink and orange pigment molecules which are absorbed by fats. These fats work their way around the body, depositing in new feathers as they grow, as well as the beak, face, and legs, and slowly change the flamingo’s colour to pink.
Why are flamingos different shades of pink?
Some flamingos are a brighter or darker tone of pink, some contain tints of orange or red, and others are a pale pink that’s almost completely white. Given that flamingos are turned pink by the carotenoids in the food they eat, it makes sense that varieties in the type and quantity of food flamingos eat can determine their exact shade.
Carotenoid levels in algae and crustaceans vary in different parts of the world. It’s for this reason Caribbean flamingos tend to be a bright orange/red pink, while flamingos living in the dry area around Kenya’s Lake Nakuru are a paler pink.
If a flamingo were to stop eating food containing carotenoids, their new feathers would start to grow in a much more pale shade – eventually growing in grey or white – at the same time as their pink feathers were lost to molting.
To this point, when flamingos were first kept in captivity, zookeepers found that they started losing most of their colouration (though maintained their one-legged standing position). Captive flamingos are now generally fed a special diet with additives including beta carotene or canthaxanthin along with their prawns, to ensure they keep their bright pink colour.
Can flamingos be colours other than pink?
There are some internet hoaxes out there that suggest blue flamingos or green flamingos exist. Sadly, this is a hoax, and not true.
These hoaxes are potentially appealing because flamingos frequently eat blue green algae. However, the flamingo metabolism processes carotenoid pigments from these blue green algae to turn them pink rather than green or blue… even if these photoshopped flamingos do look pretty cool!
The one exception to the existence of non-pink flamingos is a black flamingo. There’s proof from bird-watchers of at least one black flamingo spotted in two locations – in Cyprus in 2015 and in Israel in 2013. It’s likely that this particular flamingo has ‘melanism’ a rare condition where an animal overproduces melanin, turning it black.
Can humans turn bright pink like flamingos?
Fun fact: Flamingos are not the only animals to be coloured by their food. With similar diets, both spoonbills and pink ibis also rely on ingested carotenoids for their pink colouring.
There are also many other instances of animals changing colour as a result of eating food other than carotenoids.
Humans also eat carotenoids. Indeed, many common red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables in our diets are rich in them (carrots, squash, watermelon, apricots, squash, sweet potatoes, mangos, and more). To actually change colour, carotenoids need to be ingested in huge amounts, at the expense of any non-carotenoid rich food. Humans tend to enjoy a varied diet, and to date, it’s not clear that anyone has changed colour by eating too many carrots!
On a related point, some people take canthaxanthin pills (the same chemical some captive flamingos are fed) for an artificial tan. This does result in a change of skin shade to an orange colour.
For the final word on why flamingos are pink, this one minute BBC nature video says it all:
And that’s the lot for our explanation to answer the ‘why are flamingos pink’ question. What do you think, any surprises here? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!