A Leg to Stand On

Student and Faculty Member Team up to Research Understudied Flamingos

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Everyone knows what flamingos are, but not many people, scientists included, have thought much about the real creatures behind the plastic lawn ornaments. In fact, there are surprisingly few published research articles on the flamingo. But this summer, as people flock to zoos in droves, a Saint Joseph’s University professor and student are working to broaden our understanding of the tropical birds.

“There’s not a lot of empirical research out there on the flamingo,” Matthew Anderson, Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist and assistant professor at SJU, says. “No one really knows why, for instance, they stand on one leg. It’s kind of hard to believe.”

Anderson, along with SJU senior psychology majors Edward O’Brien and Sarah Williams, already made a first discovery in the flamingo field last fall when, after careful study, they determined that flamingos, when resting, have a personal preference for curving their necks in one direction over the other. The research has been accepted for publication in the journal Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition, and will be published later this year.

Anderson owes his fascination with flamingos to his two-year-old daughter, who decided after a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo, that flamingos were her favorite, probably, Anderson says, “because they were big, pink and close.” In an effort to educate his curious toddler, and himself, about the birds, Anderson did some research and quickly found that many of his questions about the flamingo had never been scientifically answered.

So, this summer, Anderson and Williams are testing several hypotheses to see if they can solve the one-leg flamingo enigma. The project is made possible by Saint Joseph’s University’s Summer Scholars Program, which grants students the opportunity to work closely, and collaboratively, with a faculty member on a research project, which they are required to write about and publicly present. Summer Scholars receive a stipend of $3,200, and have the option of on-campus housing at a reduced cost.

Williams has always been interested in animals and after completing an internship at the Philadelphia Zoo last summer, she looked for a way to continue to work and study there.

“My goal is to broaden people's opinions about animals, whether by showing their intelligence or showing their similarities to us,” she said. “Flamingos are mysterious in terms of behavior and so much is still unknown, which makes this research valuable and much needed.”

“Sarah had what I thought was a really interesting and brand-new hypothesis for the leg stance,” explained Anderson. “She wanted to see if the one-legged stance made it easier for resting flamingos to escape predators.”

Williams, along with Anderson, is testing her own hypothesis and the hypotheses of other researchers that have never been fully proven. They’ve been studying the Philadelphia Zoo’s captive Caribbean flamingo population, which is fairly large at 17 flamingos, with more possibly on the way. Although rare in captivity, Philadelphia’s flamingos have nested this year and eggs will be hatching in the coming weeks. The hope is that the eggs are viable and produce baby flamingos strong enough to survive. On each of her visits, Williams tracks the temperature and wind speed to determine if leg stance has something to do with conserving body heat. She also tracks the length of time each of the zoo’s flamingos spends standing on one leg, and notes left or right, to determine if leg stance, like neck curving, is an individual preference.

“Interestingly, we found that the majority of flamingos preferred curving their necks to the right,” Anderson noted. "Of course, a similar lateral bias exists in human behavior, with many more people being right-handed than left. It is always interesting to observe similar population level side preferences in other animals."”

Ultimately, Anderson says that contributing research to such an understudied bird population is enough reason to continue. “The flamingo is an iconic creature that we should know more about. And with all my research, the hope is that we can somehow better understand ourselves through the behavior of other species.”

Media Contact

Kelly Welsh, Senior Associate Director of University Communications, 610-660-1385, kwelsh@sju.edu

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