Productivity declines threaten East African soda lakes and the iconic Lesser Flamingo

Aidan Byrne, Emma Tebbs, Michael Chadwick, Peter Njoroge, Ally Nkwabi, Robin Freeman, David Harper, Ken Norris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Soda lakes are some of the most productive aquatic ecosystems.1 Their alkaline-saline waters sustain unique phytoplankton communities2,3 and provide vital habitats for highly specialized biodiversity including invertebrates, endemic fish species, and Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor).1,4 More than three-quarters of Lesser Flamingos inhabit the soda lakes of East Africa5; however, populations are in decline.6 Declines could be attributed to their highly specialized diet of cyanobacteria7 and dependence on a network of soda lake feeding habitats that are highly sensitive to climate fluctuations and catchment degradation.8,9,10,11,12 However, changing habitat availability has not been assessed due to a lack of in situ water quality and hydrology data and the irregular monitoring of these waterbodies.13 Here, we combine satellite Earth observations and Lesser Flamingo abundance observations to quantify spatial and temporal trends in productivity and ecosystem health over multiple decades at 22 soda lakes across East Africa. We found that Lesser Flamingo distributions are best explained by phytoplankton biomass, an indicator of food availability. However, timeseries analyses revealed significant declines in phytoplankton biomass from 1999 to 2022, most likely driven by substantial rises in lake water levels. Declining productivity has reduced the availability of healthy soda lake ecosystems, most notably in equatorial Kenya and northern Tanzania. Our results highlight the increasing vulnerability of Lesser Flamingos and other soda lake biodiversity in East Africa, particularly with increased rainfall predicted under climate change.14,15,16 Without improved lake monitoring and catchment management practices, soda lake ecosystems could be pushed beyond their environmental tolerances.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1786-1793.e4
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2024


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