Even for experts, this hasn’t been an easy question to answer, with zoologists offering several theories across several decades. However, one explanation now stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Fundamentally, flamingos stand on one leg to avoid muscular fatigue. “It’s an energy-saving activity, basically,” explains Dr Paul Rose, zoologist at the University of Exeter. “Believe it or not, flamingos are more stable for long periods of time on one leg than they are on two. This is because the ligaments and tendons in their legs can be locked in position - and that reduces any muscular effort to stay in one place."
“If you’re a flamingo, you’re going to want to sleep on one leg as you can activate this locking mechanism and just stay there. Sleeping on two legs would mean constantly maintaining your balance.”
It may sound somewhat counter-intuitive, but this is now the received wisdom for the 'one leg theory'. Interestingly, they aren’t the only animals to engage in this behaviour. Ducks, geese, swans and flamingos are birds of a feather, using similar locking mechanisms in their legs to stay perfectly balanced.
“So many birds stand on one leg. It just so happens that because flamingos have such long legs, we see it more,” says Rose. “Yet we can even see this behaviour in humans to some extent if they’re in a queue: people will rest more weight on one leg than the other.” But, fortunately, humans don't need to sleep standing up!
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