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Why do flamingos stand on one leg?

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Flamingos always seem to be standing on one leg. It’s a little odd, but also impressive, when you consider that the birds’ legs are long and thin and most of their body weight is horizontally oriented. Even humans, vertically oriented with the bulk of our weight in line with our center of gravity, have a hard time standing on one leg for more than a few minutes (most of us, anyway). One would think that if the birds are doing something so difficult so often for so long, there must be a benefit to it, but for a long time we had no idea what that might be. Scientists had proposed a number of explanations, but very few of them were ever tested.

Psychologists and flamingos seem like an unlikely pair, but Matthew Anderson, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, studies the evolution of behavior, and he thinks the birds’ social nature makes them a good species for investigating social influences on behavior.

In one study, he found that whether an individual flamingo lays its head on the left or the right side of its back while resting is strongly influenced by the flamingos around it. Most birds prefer to rest their necks to their right, and this kind of laterality plays a role in the social cohesion of the flock. Given that, you might predict that left-leaning flamingos would have trouble getting along with the group, and Anderson’s results indeed showed that flamingos preferring the left were more likely to be involved in spats with their flockmates. Several other of his studies have similarly demonstrated the powerful influence that the flock has on the behavior of any one flamingo.

A few years ago, Anderson and his student Sarah Williams turned their attention to the opposite end of the flamingo and decided to see if the birds had a preference for their right or left foot while standing and resting, and if there was also a social influence there. While preparing for the study, they realized that no one had ever tested a more basic question: not if or why flamingos favor one leg over the other, but why flamingos favor one leg over two.

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