Fashionable animals



For anyone who’s ever been told that using makeup is “not natural”, there might be some comfort in knowing that we humans are not the only animals who use tricks to improve our appearance. In this post you will learn about three animals who decorate themselves in different ways- and for different reasons.

Greater Flamingos

Flamingos are not actually pink by nature, but get their colour from compounds called carotenoids. They absorb these carotenoids from crustaceans and algae that they eat. In captivity flamingos turn white, so often the keepers add synthetic pigments to their diet to allow them to keep their iconic color. However, it it is not is only us humans who like pink flamingos, the flamingos themselves do too.

In 2010 Spanish ornithologist Juan Amat found that greater flamingos seem to be extra pink during mating season. The reason for that, he observed, was because they are using “make-up” to turn their plumage extra pink. Like all birds flamingos have a oil gland near their tails, and they use this oil to groom their feathers and make them waterproof. In flamingos, this oil is extra rich in carotenoid pigments, so the birds could use this oil to “paint” their feathers pink. The oil daubing would seem to be more than just regular grooming, since the birds were the most pink during the height of the mating season, and would let the colour fade during the months that they were taking care of hatchlings.The theory is that they use their extra pink appearance to improve their chances of finding a mate, as a more vibrant colour would signal a more healthy bird.

Bearded vultures


Image credit: Maarit Hohteri (2011)

The bearded vulture, also known as the lammergeier (“lamb-vulture”) or ossifrage (“bone-breaker”) is a bird of prey that can be found in the mountainous regions of Europe, Asia and Africa. Bearded vultures are interesting birds for many reasons. For one thing, they live on a diet consisting of 80% pure bone. The focus of this post however, is the fact that they, like the greater flamingo, use makeup.

The natural color of these birds (when adult) is whitish/grey, but they are often seen with a rusty red hue. This is because the birds dye their feathers red by bathing in iron oxide-rich soil. It took a long time for the biologists to figure out how this color was applied, as the birds would only do it in secret, when no one was looking. It was not until the behaviour was observed in captive birds that it could be documented. Even though this red coloring does make the birds look pretty fierce, there has been some debate over weither they do it for cosmetic reasons or not.

In 1999 Juan Jose Negro, ecologist at the Doñana Biological Station in Spain, reasoned that bearded vultures use the red color to advertise their strength to other vulturesStudies have shown that the intensity of colour is related to the age and size of the bird, which would suggest that the red colour is used as a status symbol. A more vibrant colour would show that the bird has a big enough territory to have access to good iron-oxide sources.

This theory was countered in 2002 by Raphael Arlettaz, ecologist at University of Bern in Switzerland. His theory was instead that the birds use the iron oxide to kill bacteria. That, he reasoned, would explain why females have the most intense color,  as they would rub the color on their young to protect them from infections.

Nero, again, responded to this theory with a number of counter arguments. First of all, there is nothing that suggests iron oxide has any antibacterial properties, and if it does, why has no other bird adopted the same behaviour? Also, the argument that the birds use the colour to protect their young would seem unlikely, since juvenile birds start dyeing their feathers long before they start roosting.


Chimpanzee fashion

Image credit:  van Leeuwen

In 2010, a Chimpanzee called Julie was observed starting a “fashion trend” among a group of chimpanzees in Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a sanctuary in Zambia. The trend started with Julie wearing a single blade of grass dangling from her ear. This behaviour was observed over the course of one year by primate expert Edwin van Leeuwen and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in The Netherlands. Julie would leave the blade of grass in her ear while she was doing daily activities like resting and grooming, so there seemed to be no reason for this behaviour other than it being a fashion statement. 8 of the 12 chimpanzees in the group started following the trend, the first being her own son, and the trend continued even after Julie herself died.

We are often reluctant to admit that animals can behave like us, but are our habits of using makeup that different? Like the flamingo, we can simulate good health with red lips and rosy cheeks. Like the bearded vulture, we can signal high status by showing a tanned face, suggesting that we have the time and money to travel. In our modern society however, maybe the way we use make up is most similar to the chimpanzees. Since more people have access to good healthcare and a high living standard, the way we use makeup today might be more of a way to show personality or that we belong to a certain social group. (That would explain green eyeshadows and sparkly lipsticks.)

We might consider ourselves more advanced than any other animal on this planet, but no matter how complex the new foundation formula or eyelash-lengthening mascara, the driving factor behind makeup is still a pretty basic and primitive need to communicate with each other in a way that transcends language.

2 thoughts on “Fashionable animals

  1. Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Taking the time and actual effort
    to make a superb article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a
    lot and never seem to get anything done.

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