Fluctuating algal food populations and the occurrence of lesser flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) in three Kenyan rift valley lakes
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The last two decades have witnessed increasing episodes of lesser flamingo die-offs in East Africa. Based on data on phytoplankton composition, biomass, and flamingo population density in three alkaline-saline lakes of Kenya (Bogoria, Nakuru, and Oloidien) in 2001–2010, this study explored the link between sudden flamingo deaths and fluctuations in algal food quantity and quality. The phytoplankton biomass ranged from 13 to 768 mg Æ L)1. Similarly, flamingo numbers varied widely from <1,000 to >500,000 individuals in the study lakes. The dominance of the cyanobacterium Arthrospira fusiformis (Woron.) Koma´rek et J. W. G. Lund was interrupted at irregular intervals in each lake and replaced partly by populations of different species of the nostocalean Anabaenopsis or by the picoplanktonic chlorophyte Picocystis salinarum Lewin. The populations of Anabaenopsis have the potential of blocking the flamingo food filtration system with their large and slimy colonies; moreover, they are able to produce cyanotoxins. Estimates of flamingo populations suggest that low flamingo numbers coincided with periods of low algal food quantity and ⁄ or poor quality. A food deficit can be theorized to have two effects on the flamingos: (i) it weakens them to the point of being susceptible to attacks of infective diseases, such as the ones caused by Mycobacterium avium and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and (ii) it predisposes them to poisoning by cyanotoxins and pollutants, by reducing their capacity to handle toxic substances. This study therefore concludes that the challenges facing the flamingos are associated with changes in their environment, which affect food and water supply.