To breed or not to breed: the question for flamingo

If one will think about the flagship species for salt lakes he or she most probably will mention Flamingo (as an aquatic ecologist I would argue that Artemia is more suitable to be a salt lake flagship but flamingo is definitely will attract more attention). Flocks of pink flamingo filtering the salt waters are among “the beautiful world looks like this” cliché.

We know that flamingo like salt waters and we now that they filter the plankton. We know that there are six species of Flamingo inhabiting Africa, Eurasia and South America. We are amazed with hot spots of Flamingo density such as Lake Nakuru in Africa. But it is also well known that salt lakes are lakes which are threatened by climate change. Salt lakes are very often located in the arid climate. The water level in salt lakes depends on the balance of precipitation and evaporation which lead to fluctuations of water level within relatively short time. The fluctuation of water level affects the salt lake not only by changing the area or structure of habitats but it also changes the salinity which impacts the food web. What will be the effect of changing water level and plankton community on the success of flamingo in a given lake? Should we expect that they stop breeding in lake that become less saline? There is nice paper in Hydrobiologia which address these questions.

Laguna Mar Chiquita

The great example of lake in permanent transition is Laguna Mar Chiquita in Argentina. The salinity in this lake in last 40 years dropped from 274 down to 22 g/l. Enrique Bucher and Erio Curto from University of Cordoba monitored the breeding success of the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicoptarus chilensis) during the 1969–2010 period in Mar Chiquita. There were several interdependent parameters which were considered as important for breeding of flamingo – rainfall, water level, water salinity, variability of shoreline and offshore (islands) mudflats, presence of brine shrimp (Artemia franciscana), and presence of the Argentine silverside fish (Odonthotestes bonariensis). With the increase of the level of the lake and salinity drop the food web in the lake completely altered – Artemia disappeared and the lake was invaded by fish.

Indeed the lake experienced great changes but not flamingo populations did the same. Flamingos bred irregularly during both high- and low-salinity periods (11 successful attempts in 42 years). The only environmental factor always associated with breeding events was availability of mudflats, mostly bordering islands which guarantee the absence of mammal predators. Successful breeding attempts we recorded once every 3.85 years. While it looks like flamingos are very adaptable and opportunistic species (no effect of salinity, fish and plankton composition) the unstable breeding means there are other factors which control them. As Mar Chiquita is a Ramsar site the paper presents some management implications of the study. I would summarize the paper in one sentence: the wide range natural fluctuations were not able to kill the flamingo while the human intervention can do it.

Enrique Bucher. The field trip during the International Conference on Salt Lake Research (Mar Chiquita, 2011)
Bucher, E., & Curto, E. (2012). Influence of long-term climatic changes on breeding of the Chilean flamingo in Mar Chiquita, Córdoba, Argentina Hydrobiologia, 697 (1), 127-137 DOI: 10.1007/s10750-012-1176-z

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