How A Colombian Drug King's Escaped Hippos Have Changed Colombian Ecosystems

A group of common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) in Zambia, Africa, where their population is kept in check by natural predation and environmental constraints. Phillip Allaway/Shutterstock

Madison Dapcevich 27 Sep 2018, 22:34

The team found that the big animals are leaving an equally large footprint – literally. Because of their large size, the hippos change wetland structures simply by walking through it. They are also “ecosystem engineers” that eat grass on land and poop in the water, moving nutrients from one ecosystem to the other. While their poop acts as a fertilizer, too much of it can be toxic and suffocate water systems, while a change in water chemistry can further threaten those that live in aquatic environments.

“It was not expected that the hippopotamus would be integrated into the aquatic ecosystems of Colombia so successfully,” biologist and Colombian native Aranguren-Riaño said in a statement. “The risk to native species such as manatees, turtles, and fish is high and the environmental effect is unpredictable. It is a big problem because they have migrated to the Magdalena River and could spread to other strategic regions of Colombia.”

Hippos help to manage grasslands by eating vegetation, which gives scientists a window into ecosystems 10,000 to 20,000 years ago when other giants, like mastodons and mammoths, roamed savannas and grasslands that later turned to forests after they died off. 

The researchers note that Colombians and tourists often misinterpret hippos as gentle giants, which they certainly are not, and it could pose future human-animal conflicts

Then again, hippo populations in Africa have dropped to vulnerable status, and others argue that any rebound in numbers – even on a different continent – could be a good thing.

[H/T: National Geographic and UCSD]

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