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Wild Weather Birds (Grades 3-6)

A scientist braves harsh weather conditions to study an unusual group of flamingos

When Felicity Arengo tells people she studies flamingos, they usually picture her working in a T-shirt in a warm and sunny spot. But when Arengo heads out to observe the pink birds in the wild, she needs far more than sunscreen.

As part of her job as the Associate Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Arengo studies flamingos that live on the Altiplano of South America. This high plateau in the Andes mountain chain is one of the harshest places on Earth. Arengo withstands the Altiplano's extreme conditions so she can learn more about the unusual birds that call it home.

Arengo studies three species of flamingos-James, Andean, and Chilean flamingos. While many flamingos hang closer to sea level, the Andean and James flamingos spend most of the year roughly 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) above sea level. There is little oxygen in the air at this altitude. "We take oxygen tanks in case people have trouble breathing," says Arengo. There are no trees to provide shelter from the howling winds and the temperature can drop to -29ºC (-20ºF).

This frigid location may seem like an unusual place for dainty-looking flamingos to live. But it has wetlands similar to the ones in the tropical areas where other flamingos live. There are shallow, salty lakes through which the long-legged flamingos can wade. The lakes are packed with tiny organisms that provide food for the birds.

There are many mysteries left to uncover about the Altiplano flamingos. From counts that Arengo and her colleagues have done, they know that Andean flamingos are the rarest in the world. The birds live in a large area that spans four countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Arengo tracks the birds by fitting radio transmitters to adult flamingos. These radio transmitters send out a signal that can be tracked from space with satellites.

The studies have shown that during the winter, many of these flamingos fly to wetlands at lower altitudes in Argentina. Because the high-altitude lakes can freeze in the winter, the flamingos rely on these warmer wetlands to survive.

Scientists are finding that the flamingos' wetlands are at risk of disappearing. In some areas, the ranchers are draining the lakes to get more land to grow crops. In other places, mining companies are using up and polluting the water. If these wetlands ever disappear, it will cause trouble for more than just flamingos. "[The lakes] are the lifeline for all organisms in the area," says Arengo.

Arengo and partners are working together to protect the wetlands. They are using the flamingos as a flagship species to get support for the work. They have been raising awareness and increasing protection for some of the wetlands. Arengo says the flamingos are a perfect flagship species because they make their homes in so many countries. "It brings people from all of the countries together," she says.

Britt Norlander

Words to Know
Plateau—a large, flat area of land that is higher than the land around it
Altitude—height above sea level
Wetland—an area of land soaked or covered in water
Flagship species—a species that is popular with people and is used to get support for efforts to protect a particular habitat

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