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Homo sapiens evolved to the modern form you experience every day in your life about 300,000 years ago. For as dominant as we’ve become on this planet, humans aren’t very old considering the earth itself is estimated to be more than 4.5 billion years young. For those of us who are fond of the fabulous fowl, these facts beg the question: for how long have flamingos existed on earth?
Human lineage traces even further back than 300,000 years. Neanderthals, our closest relatives, are hundreds of thousands of years older than that. The evolutionary transition to bipedal movement to the humans we have mixed feelings about today took five-plus million years.
But Flamingos make us look like spring chickens.
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For How Long Have Flamingos Existed on Earth?
The oldest flamingo fossils ever found have been dated to be 50 million years old, dwarfing the time humans have been roaming the earth and illustrating just how historic these birds are. Those fossils came from Australia, a departure from where the fabulous fowl resides around the world today that displays some shifts both the animal and world have undergone over the millenia. It’s believed that the birds found better breeding grounds as a changing world dried the lakes that once populated Australia a long time ago.
“Although we haven’t found a lot of flamingos, the fact that there are any flamingos at all tells us that there were definitely shallow lakes or very wide flat pans that were full of water at least some parts of the year, enough to bring flamingos in,” Dr. Adam Yates, senior curator of Earth Sciences at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, told Alice Springs of ABC News in March 2018.
Not only did flamingos live in Australia all that time ago, but they were thriving. It’s believed that there were several different species of the bird living on the continent back then with comparable diversity to flamingo hubs now.
“During their heyday, there were more species of flamingo living in Australia than anywhere else in the world - up to as many as five species at one time,” Yates said to ABC News.
Those ancestors were likely not carbon copies of the majestic pink bird you can find today in the Caribbean, Africa, India, and more, but the bird ultimately hasn’t changed all that much since the Oligocene Epoch, according to the Australian Museum, which dates back to roughly 30 million years ago. That is the more accurate number for the age of flamingos as we know them to be.
These early flamingos would have lived similar lives to their brethren tens of millions of years later, munching on tasty crustaceans and hanging out where it’s cool in the water. Brine shrimp would have been plentiful for them to eat, Yates explained.
We know that flamingos eventually moved on from Australia. Flamingos are not exactly desert birds. One of the oldest discoveries of a flamingo fossil elsewhere in the world was made in the Andes Mountains: some well-preserved footprints that have been dated at about seven million years old.
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Flamingo lineage is a difficult one to trace. There are a handful of other birds - geese, storks, and others - that share physical and personality traits with flamingos, but there are clashes in comparison, too, that make it hard for scientists to draw the perfect line. This complicates dating and understanding the full flamingo story, but the fossils that have been found erase enough of the unknown for educated guesses.
But what we know for sure is: flamingos are significantly older than humans. You better respect your elders!