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Every year, over a million wildebeest make their way across the Serengeti in the largest remaining land migration. New research shows the thousands of wildebeest that drown crossing the Mara River in the process are an important source of nutrients for the entire Serengeti Mara ecosystem.

What they found: Wildebeest carcasses take about 28 days to decompose, and as they did they were integrated into the food chain at every level, from scavenging birds to fish to bacteria. Crocodiles, possibly because of their slow metabolism, only ate about 2% of the carcasses. After the meat was consumed, the bones leached nutrients downstream.

How they did it: The scientists used historical reports of mass drownings from 2001-2014 and conducted field surveys from 2011-2015. They studied the carcasses as they decomposed, measured nutrient levels downstream of the drownings, used cameras and chemical analysis to estimate how much of the carcasses were eaten by each scavenger.

By the numbers: According to the researchers, up to 1600 tons of wildebeest end up in the river each year - that's roughly the equivalent of ten blue whales. As the carcasses decompose, they raise the phosphorous levels in the river by as much as 451%, the carbon by up to 191%, and the nitrogen by up to 78%.

For comparison, this is four times the mass moved by the salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest. Some scientists think the Northwest owes its lush forests to these salmon, which scavengers distribute through the forest like fish fertilizer. It's possible wildebeest play a similar role in the Mara.

Bottom line: River systems that no longer have large migrations may have lost a vital source of nutrients, say the researchers.

Go deeper

Schumer's m(aj)ority checklist

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Capitalizing on the Georgia runoffs, achieving a 50-50 Senate and launching an impeachment trial are weighty to-dos for getting Joe Biden's administration up and running on Day One.

What to watch: A blend of ceremonies, hearings and legal timelines will come into play on Tuesday and Wednesday so Chuck Schumer can actually claim the Senate majority and propel the new president's agenda.

The dark new reality in Congress

National Guard troops keep watch at security fencing. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This is how bad things are for elected officials and others working in a post-insurrection Congress:

  • Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) said she had a panic attack while grocery shopping back home.
  • Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said police may also have to be at his constituent meetings.
  • Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told a podcaster he brought a gun to his office on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 because he anticipated trouble with the proceedings that day.
Off the Rails

Episode 3: Descent into madness ... Trump: "Sometimes you need a little crazy"

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 3: The conspiracy goes too far. Trump's outside lawyers plot to seize voting machines and spin theories about communists, spies and computer software.

President Trump was sitting in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from lawyer Sidney Powell. "Ugh, Sidney," he told the staff in the room before he picked up. "She's getting a little crazy, isn't she? She's really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It's just too much."

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