Invading hippos

Jonathan Shurin was studying declining water quality in Lago de Tota, Colombia’s largest lake, when he learned about a local invasion of the common hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibius.  Four hippos were imported to Colombia by the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar to populate his private zoo.  Following Escobar’s shooting death in 1993, the zoo fell into disrepair and the hippos wandered off free.  The population now numbers between 65-80, and breeding individuals have been seen 150 km from the zoo.


Hippos wallow in a lake framed by cattle egrits. Credit J. Shurin

Common hippos are native to central and southern Africa; as their scientific name implies they divide their existence between land (mostly at night) and water (keeping cool during the day).  These are huge animals, weighing up to 1500 kg and capable of running a surprising 30 kg/hr.  Apparently it is very easy to annoy a hippo.  From an ecosystem standpoint, hippos in their native Africa have been shown to have a strong impact on ecosystems by grazing on land at night and then releasing processed nutrients into lakes during the day.  Their influence is greatest during the dry season when they’re concentrated at high densities.  Jonathan Shurin and his colleagues wanted to know whether hippos were having a discernable effect on lakes and rivers in Colombia.  Given an expectation that the hippo population will continue to grow, this question has important management implications.


A grazing hippo. Credit: J. Shurin

The researchers sampled 14 small lakes at Hacienda Napoles in Antioquia, Columbia during the wet season and the dry season.  All lakes were sampled from shore because entering a lake containing hippos can be hazardous to a researcher’s health.peligrohippo

Two lakes were found to contain hippos, while the other 12 did not (though some had been observed with hippos on other occasions).  The analysis compared the two lakes with hippos to the 12 lakes without hippos for nutrients, conductivity, pH, temperature and chlorohyll-a concentration (a measure of photosynthetic activity).  The researchers sampled for phytoplankton, zooplankton and used dip nets to sample macroinvertebrates.  They found few differences in most categories except for the composition of the phytoplankton community. As you can see below, lakes with hippos had considerably more cyanophytes (photosynthetic bacteria often associated with harmful algal blooms), and fewer chlorophytes and charophytes (types of green algae) than did lakes without hippos.


Mean relative density of different divisions of phytoplankton in the two lakes with hippos (left bar) and the 12 lakes without hippos (right bar).

Shurin and his colleagues also estimated net production of each lake by systematically measuring dissolved oxygen concentration throughout the day. Photosynthetic organisms in highly productive lakes should take up lots of carbon dioxide during the day, and release considerable oxygen into the water.  Thus the difference in oxygen levels during the day (when photosynthesis occurs) vs. night (when there is no photosynthetic activity) would be greatest in highly productive lakes. The researchers discovered from multiple samples that the two lakes with hippos had an average range of 3.6 mg/L in dissolved oxygen levels which was significantly greater than the average range of 2.1 mg/L measured in three of the lakes without hippos (it was not feasible to measure all of the no hippo lakes). Presumably, this difference occurs from high photosynthetic rates during the day in the lakes with hippos.


Time series of dissolved oxygen in the sampled lakes.  Notice how dissolved oxygen levels peak in the late afternoon (hour 12 = noon), but decline overnight without input from photosynthesis.

In addition to comparing the quantity of nutrients, Shurin and his colleagues wanted to know the source of the nutrients.  Stable isotopes are forms of elements (in this case carbon and nitrogen) that differ in number of neutrons.  They are called stable, because they don’t undergo radioactive decay.  Stable isotope analysis measures the ratio of rare isotopes of a particular element in comparison to the more common isotope (for example 13C compared to 12C). Relevant to the hippo study, plants growing on land tend to have a higher (less negative for carbon, more positive for nitrogen) stable isotope ratio of carbon (delta13C) and nitrogen (delta15N) than do plants growing in water.  So if hippos were bringing nutrients into the lakes, the researchers expected the two hippo lakes to have higher stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen.

As you can see from the graph below, on average, the two hippo lakes had higher stable isotope ratios of carbon, but not of nitrogen.  This indicates that hippos are importing carbon into the lake – presumably eating 13C rich plants during the evening, and then pooping out the remains when they return to the water.  However there is no evidence that hippos are importing nitrogen into the lakes.


Stable C and N isotopic ratios for samples collected from lakes with (green) and without (orange) hippo populations. Solid circles are the mean values of multiple samples collected at different times from the same lake, and open circles are the individual observations from each sample.

Shurin and his colleagues acknowledge the difficulty of drawing conclusions on ecosystem impact based on only two lakes with hippos.  On the other hand, finding significant differences with such a small sample is noteworthy, particularly when considering that the hippo invasion may be in its early stages.  If we extrapolate, from four hippos in 1993 to the lower estimate of 65 hippos at the time of the study, and assume exponential growth, we should find 785 hippos by 2040 and over 7000 hippos by 2060.  There are several assumptions with this extrapolation, but if unchecked the hippo population could expand dramatically, impacting ecosystem functioning in many different ways.


Observed (solid circles) and projected (open circles) growth of the hippo population in Antioquia, Columbia, assuming exponential growth.

But should we worry about this?  After all, hippos are amazingly cool, and tourists have begun visiting Hacienda Napoles specifically to see the hippos.  This is an example of a social-ecological mismatch, where the societal value placed on a species may oppose potential negative environmental impact. Conservation ecologists will need to work with the local community to devise a plan that serves the best interests of the ecosystem, and the humans who live there.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Shurin, J. B., Aranguren-Riaño, N., Duque Negro, D., Echeverri Lopez, D., Jones, N. T., Laverde‐R, O., Neu, A., and Pedroza Ramos, A. 2020. Ecosystem effects of the world’s largest invasive animal. Ecology 101(5):e02991. 10.1002/ecy.2991. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2020 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.