With their spindly legs, long necks and bright plumage, flamingos are a curiosity of nature. Now a new discovery by a team of Ohio University researchers reveals an anatomical oddity that helps flamingos eat: erectile tissue.
From the Ohio U press release:
Flamingos are known for their peculiar feeding behavior. While standing in shallow water, they bend their necks, tilt their bills upside down in the water and swish their heads from side-to-side. Their large tongue acts like a piston, sucking water into the front of the bill and then pushing it out the sides. Fringed plates on the tongue trap algae and crustaceans in the circulating water.
“The flamingos’ feeding habits have captured people’s curiosity for ages, but that wasn’t the original focus of our research,” said Casey Holliday, who recently earned a doctorate in biological sciences from Ohio University and served as lead author on the study. “We were investigating the evolution of jaw muscles in lizards, birds and dinosaurs. By sheer luck we discovered something new about flamingos.”
A 3-D view of the bird’s head was created using a new computed tomography (CT) scanning technique developed by the Ohio U team that highlights blood vessel anatomy. The researchers noticed large oval masses of erectile tissue located on the floor of the mouth on either side of the tongue.
“No one ever anticipated finding something like this, and now we’re scratching our heads trying to understand the role these tissues play,” said Lawrence Witmer, a professor of anatomy in Ohio U’s College of Osteopathic Medicine who directed the study.
Larry has this to add, "The project was done as part of a routine vascular injection study to provide information that feeds into several of our fossil archosaur projects. It also has other paleo tie-ins because we found osteological correlates that might inform us about evolution of similar structure in other animals."
Click HERE to go to the Witmer Lab’s “Vascular Anatomy In Flamingos” page for more information and some cool CT animation video.
Readers up in Canada will be able to see a piece next week on “Daily Planet” (Discovery Channel Canada) all about this story.