The first time I heard why flamingos were pink was from my 16 year-old daughter. I promptly asked her where she heard such nonsense and told her she was irrefutably and unequivocally wrong. It was about 6 months later that I learned the truth – she was correct. As preposterous as it sounds, flamingos are pink from eating shrimp. Cecil Adams, the famed researcher and writer of the weekly column, The Straight Dope, put these feelings into words best when he said, “This knowledge causes me some distress, because it reinforces the cartoon view of the universe.”
It turns out that both the shrimp and blue-green algae that are the staples of the flamingo diet contain a pink pigment based on beta carotene that goes through their bloodstream and turns their feathers from white to pink. The more carotenoids in the shrimp, the darker pink the flamingos will become. When flamingos were first captured for display at zoos and parks, they didn’t have sufficient supplies of the flamingo’s favorite shrimp, so they substitute other food. By the end of the season, all of the flamingos were white. To make the flamingos more natural-looking, the keepers had to feed them vegetables high in beta carotenes, such as beets, carrots, and bell peppers. Today, captive flamingos are fed a chemical substitute called canthaxanthin that keeps them a nice shade of pink.
People have known for a long time about the properties colorizing properties of beta carotene. In Europe, people used to eat massive amounts of carrots to reproduce suntanned skin. Of course, their skin became an alien-like orange color that doesn’t look anything like a suntan, but they were happy with it. Smaller amounts of beta carotene are still used today in tanning oils and sunless tanning creams.
Flamingos are not the only animals affected by carotenoids. Wild salmon are orange-tinted because of their love of carotenoid-rich crustaceans. To prevent farm-raised salmon from becoming a sickly gray, they are fed a chemical carotenoid, astaxanthin. Canaries can also change color from yellow to red if they eat foods containing beta carotenes.
Posted 2192 day ago