Multi-level fission-fusion societies, characteristic of a number of large brained mammal species including some primates, cetaceans and elephants, are among the most complex and cognitively demanding animal social systems. Many free-ranging populations of these highly social mammals already face severe human disturbance, which is set to accelerate with projected anthropogenic environmental change. Despite this, our understanding of how such disruption affects core aspects of social functioning is still very limited.
Megaherbivores (>1000 kg) are critical for ecosystem health and function, but face population collapse and extinction globally. The future of these megaherbivore-impoverished ecosystems is difficult to predict, though many studies have demonstrated increasing representation of C3 woody plants. These studies rely on direct observational data, however, and tools for assessing decadal-scale changes in African ecology without observation are lacking. We use isotopic records of historical common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) canines to quantify herbaceous vegetation change in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda following a period of civil unrest and poaching. This poaching event led to population collapse of two threatened African megaherbivore species: hippopotamus and African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Serial carbon isotope ratios (δ(13)C) in canine enamel from individuals that lived between 1960-2000 indicated substantial increases in C3 herbaceous plants in their diet (<20% C3 in the 1960s to 30-45% C3 in the 80s and 90s), supported by other observational and ecological data. These data indicate megaherbivore loss results in succession of both woody and herbaceous C3 vegetation and further reaching effects, such as decreased grazing capacity and herbivore biodiversity in the area. Given multiple lines of evidence, these individuals appear to accurately capture herbaceous vegetation change in Mweya.
Poaching of elephants is now occurring at rates that threaten African populations with extinction. Identifying the number and location of Africa’s major poaching hotspots may assist efforts to end poaching and facilitate recovery of elephant populations. We genetically assign origin to 28 large ivory seizures (≥0.5 tons) made between 1996-2014, also testing assignment accuracy. Results suggest that the major poaching hotspots in Africa may be currently concentrated in as few as two areas. Increasing law enforcement in these two hotspots could help curtail future elephant losses across Africa and disrupt this organized transnational crime.
Efforts to curb elephant poaching have focused on reducing demand, confiscating ivory and boosting security patrols in elephant range. Where land is under multiple uses and ownership, determining the local poaching dynamics is important for identifying successful conservation models. Using 2,403 verified elephant, Loxodonta africana, mortality records collected from 2002 to 2012 and the results of aerial total counts of elephants conducted in 2002, 2008 and 2012 for the Laikipia-Samburu ecosystem of northern Kenya, we sought to determine the influence of land ownership and use on diurnal elephant distribution and on poaching levels. We show that the annual proportions of illegally killed (i.e., poached) elephants increased over the 11 years of the study, peaking at 70% of all recorded deaths in 2012. The type of land use was more strongly related to levels of poaching than was the type of ownership. Private ranches, comprising only 13% of land area, hosted almost half of the elephant population and had significantly lower levels of poaching than other land use types except for the officially designated national reserves (covering only 1.6% of elephant range in the ecosystem). Communal grazing lands hosted significantly fewer elephants than expected, but community areas set aside for wildlife demonstrated significantly higher numbers of elephants and lower illegal killing levels relative to non-designated community lands. While private lands had lower illegal killing levels than community conservancies, the success of the latter relative to other community-held lands shows the importance of this model of land use for conservation. This work highlights the relationship between illegal killing and various land ownership and use models, which can help focus anti-poaching activities.
MC5R is one of five melanocortin receptor genes found in placental mammals. MC5R plays an important role in energy homeostasis and is also expressed in the terminal differentiation of sebaceous glands. Among placental mammals there are multiple lineages that either lack or have degenerative sebaceous glands including Cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), Hippopotamidae (hippopotamuses), Sirenia (manatees and dugongs), Proboscidea (elephants), Rhinocerotidae (rhinos), and Heterocephalus glaber (naked mole rat). Given the loss or diminution of sebaceous glands in these taxa, we procured MC5R sequences from publicly available genomes and transcriptomes, supplemented by a newly generated sequence for Choeropsis liberiensis (pygmy hippopotamus), to determine if this gene remains intact or is inactivated in association with loss/reduction of sebaceous glands. Our data set includes complete MC5R sequences for 114 placental mammal species including two individuals of Mammuthus primigenius (woolly mammoth) from Oimyakon and Wrangel Island. Complete loss or inactivation of the MC5R gene occurs in multiple placental lineages that have lost sebaceous glands (Cetacea, West Indian manatee, African elephant, white rhinoceros) or are characterized by unusual skin (pangolins, aardvarks). Both M. primigenius individuals share inactivating mutations with the African elephant even though sebaceous glands have been reported in the former. MC5R remains intact in hippopotamuses and the naked mole rat, although slightly elevated dN/dS ratios in these lineages allow for the possibility that the accumulation of inactivating mutations in MC5R may lag behind the relaxation of purifying selection. For Cetacea and Hippopotamidae, the absence of shared inactivating mutations in two different skin genes (MC5R, PSORS1C2) is consistent with the hypothesis that semi-aquatic lifestyles were acquired independently in these clades following divergence from a common ancestor.
In semi-arid environments, ‘permanent’ rivers are essential sources of surface water for wildlife during ‘dry’ seasons when rainfall is limited or absent, particularly for species whose resilience to water scarcity is low. The hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) requires submersion in water to aid thermoregulation and prevent skin damage by solar radiation; the largest threat to its viability are human alterations of aquatic habitats. In the Ruaha National Park (NP), Tanzania, the Great Ruaha River (GRR) is the main source of surface water for wildlife during the dry season. Recent, large-scale water extraction from the GRR by people upstream of Ruaha NP is thought to be responsible for a profound decrease in dry season water-flow and the absence of surface water along large sections of the river inside the NP. We investigated the impact of decreased water flow on daytime hippo distribution using regular censuses at monitoring locations, transects and camera trap records along a 104km section of the GRR within the Ruaha NP during two dry seasons. The minimum number of hippos per monitoring location increased with the expanse of surface water as the dry seasons progressed, and was not affected by water quality. Hippo distribution significantly changed throughout the dry season, leading to the accumulation of large numbers in very few locations. If surface water loss from the GRR continues to increase in future years, this will have serious implications for the hippo population and other water dependent species in Ruaha NP.
According to molecular data, hippopotamuses and cetaceans form a clade excluding other extant cetartiodactyls. Despite a wealth of spectacular specimens documenting cetacean evolution, this relationship remains poorly substantiated by the fossil record. Indeed, the evolutionary path leading from the hippo-cetacean ancestor to Hippopotamidae is plagued by missing fossil data and phylogenetic uncertainties. Only an origination within the extinct anthracotheres is compatible with molecular results, substantial filling of phyletic gaps and recent discoveries of early Miocene hippopotamids. Yet, the anthracothere stock that gave rise to Hippopotamidae has not been identified. Consequently, recent phylogenetic accounts do not properly integrate the anthracotheriid hypothesis, and relate Hippopotamidae to a stretched ghost lineage and/or close to Suina. Here we describe a new anthracothere from Lokone (Kenya) that unambiguously roots the Hippopotamidae into a well-identified group of bothriodontines, the first large mammals to invade Africa. The hippos are deeply anchored into the African Paleogene.
Accurate counts of animals are critical for prioritizing conservation efforts. Past research, however, suggests that observers on aerial surveys may fail to detect all individuals of the target species present in the survey area. Such errors could bias population estimates low and confound trend estimation. We used two approaches to assess the accuracy of aerial surveys for African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) in northern Botswana. First, we used double-observer sampling, in which two observers make observations on the same herds, to estimate detectability of elephants and determine what variables affect it. Second, we compared total counts, a complete survey of the entire study area, against sample counts, in which only a portion of the study area is sampled. Total counts are often considered a complete census, so comparing total counts against sample counts can help to determine if sample counts are underestimating elephant numbers. We estimated that observers detected only 76% ± SE of 2% of elephant herds and 87 ± 1% of individual elephants present in survey strips. Detectability increased strongly with elephant herd size. Out of the four observers used in total, one observer had a lower detection probability than the other three, and detectability was higher in the rear row of seats than the front. The habitat immediately adjacent to animals also affected detectability, with detection more likely in more open habitats. Total counts were not statistically distinguishable from sample counts. Because, however, the double-observer samples revealed that observers missed 13% of elephants, we conclude that total counts may be undercounting elephants as well. These results suggest that elephant population estimates from both sample and total counts are biased low. Because factors such as observer and habitat affected detectability of elephants, comparisons of elephant populations across time or space may be confounded. We encourage survey teams to incorporate detectability analysis in all aerial surveys for mammals.
In a prospective, clinical, surgery study we report here for the first time, in detail, on the surgical castration of 10 captive adult male common hippopotami (Hippopotamus amphibius). The successful procedures, a species-specific modification of standard equine castration techniques, provide valuable insight into the spatially dynamic nature of the common hippopotamus testis. The use of ultrasonography to locate the testis before and during the procedures and species-specific positioning during surgery greatly facilitated this distinctive procedure. Additionally, this surgical method provides an important additional tool for captive management of the common hippopotamus. Castration of individual males not only facilitates population control but can potentially also be employed to limit intermale aggression.
The evolution of whales marks one of the major transitions in the history of mammals. Two new studies provide key insights into the evolution of hearing specializations and feeding strategies in early whales.