How can flamingos detect rain 500km away?

BBC Wildlife writer Henry Gee investigates an enduring wildlife mystery.

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Flamingoes © Joanne Knight 

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Flamingos in Africa rely on the teeming life of freshwater and soda lakes, which they strain through the sieve-like structures in their bills. But many of the lakes on which they depend are ephemeral, prone to drying out almost completely.

Flamingos are the last relics of an extremely ancient lineage of waterbird, known from a time 50 million years ago, when the planet was in general warmer and wetter than it is today. In an increasingly arid world, these long-lived creatures have evolved a remarkable ability the Met Office would envy – long-distance weather forecasting.

On the parched coast of Namibia, greater flamingos appear to know when the rains are due in the usually dry Etosha Pan that lies 500km away. How? It’s too far away to see lightning or hear thunder. It’s possible that the birds are sensitive to the minuscule drops in barometric pressure that signal oncoming rainfall.

But nobody knows if this is true, and, if it is, how they do it. Like the magnetic sense, the weather sense of flamingos and other birds is an enigma.

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