Planet Earth

Flamingos Thrive in a Hostile Home

By Discover StaffJun 28, 2016 12:00 PM

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In East Africa’s volcanic Great Rift Valley, basins filled with water reach temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As water evaporates, it leaves behind high concentrations of sodium, carbonate and chloride compounds that turn the water into a caustic solution that will burn a person’s eyes and skin. Clothes disintegrate in hours. 

The environment is too harsh for most animals, but these mineral-rich waters serve as safe havens — and ideal breeding grounds — for flamingos. Algae that thrive in these lakes sustain a population of some 1.5 million lesser flamingos. It’s the algae that give flamingo feathers their distinctive pink color.

For years, photographer Paul McKenzie has returned to these caustic waters to photograph flamingos in their hostile home.

These photos originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine featuring beautiful and surprising stories about nature and sustainability. To learn more about how flamingos adapted to this unique environment, read Rachel Becker's full story, "March of the Flamingos."

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

Thousands of lesser flamingos congregate in the algae-rich water of Kenya’s Lake Logipi.

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

Lake Natron, with its swirls of concentrated sodium compounds, provides a mesmerizing backdrop for a pair of lesser flamingos.

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

As they wade through an algae slick in Kenya’s Lake Logipi, the flamingos leave temporary trails in their wake.

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

The mineral-rich waters and mud that are caustic to most other animals that venture into the soda lakes provide safe haven—and ideal breeding grounds—for the flamingo.

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

Lake Natron—the breeding ground for about three quarters of the world’s population of lesser flamingos—has been threatened several times in the past decade by proposals to mine the lake for soda ash.

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

Even with a population that numbers in the millions, the flamingos’ inextricable link to the soda lakes makes them vulnerable to a changing climate and human activity. These factors could upset the delicate balance the birds have struck in this harsh environment.

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

Leaving trails behind as evidence of their last stop, lesser flamingos fly over the silt-infused water of Kenya’s Lake Logipi.

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

Lesser flamingos fly in formation over the dry bed of Kenya’s Lake Logipi.

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

A flock flies over Kenya’s Lake Logibi in search of feeding grounds. The bright birds preferentially eat the algae Arthrospira fusiformis, which tints their feathers pink with the pigment molecules and nutrients the algae contain.

Photo Credits: Paul McKenzie

“Flamingos have not only managed to survive in these conditions, they positively thrive. It’s a triumph of evolution that they’ve adapted to these hostile environments.” – Paul McKenzie

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