Why Australia’s flamingo population died out

Flamingos as tall as emus once stalked the lands of Australia, but when inland lakes disappeared, so too did the striking pink plume of the bird.

Australia was once home to three different species, mostly inhabiting the outback.

Now, all that points to their existence are the pink salt lakes, like that of Lake MacDonnell in Western Australia.

They roamed Australia for about 25 million years, Flinders University researchers say, and some were much larger than the flamingos we know today.

The inland lakes they called home gradually disappeared, due to climate change, killing off the last of the Aussie flamingos about 140,000 years ago.

A pink salt lake at Port Gregory in Western Australia. Central Australia was once home to many luscious pink lakes – and flamingos. Photo: Getty

When all the lakes dried up, the species was doomed, fossil bird expert Associate Professor Trevor Worthy said.

“Feeding on tiny crustaceans, which gave them the familiar pink colour, these birds evolved to live in shallow lakes and breed during the seasonal blooms of algae and zooplankton,” Professor Worthy explained.

The tale of the Australian flamingo comes as a complete list of all fossil birds in Australia is published, detailing about 100 birds that once flew in our skies.

“Flamingos are just some of the bird diversity lost in Australia’s history,” Professor Worthy said.

“What we show is that there is much yet to learn about the evolution of Australia’s birds through more work on the fossils described so far.

“It shows we know very little about the evolution of important Australian groups such as raptors, pigeons, parrots and songbirds. In fact, there is much yet to learn about land birds generally.”

As well as overgrown flamingos, Australia was also once home to giant penguins, avian palaeontologist Dr Jacqueline Nguyen added.

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