Fascinating Facts About Hungry Hungry Hippos in the Wild
The hippopotamus is an anomaly in that it looks adorable and therefore friendly. However, this cuteness is a little deceiving — the hippo is the most dangerous land animal in the world.
You may think they lazily spend their days enjoying waterways and munching on grass — and, sure, there's a reason they've been called "hungry, hungry hippos." But there is so much more to this fascinating creature than you can imagine.
Hippos in the Modern Era
There are two species of hippos living today — the common hippo and the smaller pygmy hippo.
Both species live on the continent of Africa. However, at one time, there were other species in Europe, India, Indonesia, Madagascar and Israel. Why they went extinct is largely unclear.
The Precious Pygmy
The adorable pygmy hippo looks like a mini version of the common hippo, but it is rarer, and its behaviors are more of a mystery. It spends time in water like its larger cousin but is far less aquatic overall.
The pygmy is found in parts of Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast but is generally located in Liberia. This shy, nocturnal creature was unknown to scientists until about 1840, and because it doesn't seek the spotlight, there's still a lot we don't know about it.
The Hippos' Current Home
Common hippos reside in the eastern central region of Africa and below the Sahara Desert.
Hippos can be found in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Rwanda, Botswana, Senegal, Gambia, Chad, Zambia, Togo, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ghana, the Republic of Congo and South Africa.
...And the Habitat Where They Roam
The common hippo lives in habitats with grass and water bodies around lakes, rivers and mangrove swamps.
They love water but don't like bodies that are too deep or shallow. If the water is deep enough to reach its head, the hippo is a very happy camper.
Long-Gone European Hippos
Believe it or not, hippos once roamed Europe. The European hippo evolved about a million years ago and disappeared before the last Ice Age. Hippopotamus gorgops, the largest of the extinct hippos, also vanished around the same time.
The giant European hippo roamed the farthest north out of all the European hippo species, even living in what is now Britain before it went extinct.
An Imposing Presence
Hippos are among the world’s largest land mammals — they are right behind elephants and white rhinos in size.
Bulls (adult males) tip the scales between 3,300 and 7,050 pounds, continuing to grow all their lives. Females stop growing at about 25 and weigh a few hundred pounds. They are approximately 5-feet tall and 10- to 16-feet long, which makes them about the size of a car.
Tusks and Teeth
A hippo's canine teeth are like tusks and are used for fighting. Males "lock" them together in battle.
These teeth, which can grow to be more than 1.5-feet long, contain ivory, which is softer than what you would find from elephant tusks.
A Feast Fit for a Hippo
After spending the day at or in the water, hippos come out at sundown to feast on grasses and nutrient-rich fruits, shoots and reeds.
They do occasionally feast on the odd aquatic plant.
It's a Territorial Thing
Hippos are one of the most dangerous land mammals in the world. This highly territorial animal will attack anything or anyone getting too close for comfort, particularly when calves are present.
They can (and will) charge and crush a human or drown them by overturning their boat. Trust us: You don't want to get bit — their sharp teeth and tusks have taken down buffalo, impala and kudu.
A Hippo Yawn Isn't Just About Being Sleepy
A yawning hippo doesn't always mean they're about to nap. Think of a hippo yawn as a warning for you to steer clear.
Hippos also make a deep laughing sound, which is another sign you're invading their territory.
So, Will a Hippo Eat a Human?
While hippos kill about 500 people each year, they do not eat them. Hippos are herbivores; their digestive systems do not break down meat well.
While they don't have a particular beef with humans, they are wild animals, which makes them unpredictable. They often see humans as intruders and go on the defense.
A Hippo's Predators
Sure, hippos are big and dangerous, but they also have predators. A pack of lions can bring a hippo down if they're really hungry, but most other animals don't attempt to make the effort.
Young hippos are prey for spotted lions, hyenas and crocodiles — that is if they can get around the mother hippos first.
The Play a Vital Part in the Ecosystem
A hippo stirs up the soil beneath its feet and helps clear vegetation around wetlands. In rivers, they run along the bottom, redirecting water through the new channels they create. Doing this allows smaller animals to create new shelters and habitats in their wake. After eating on land, they go to the water and leave dung, from which aquatic creatures get their nutrients.
All of these are major contributors to the overall ecosystem.
Hippos Are Vulnerable in the Wild
While hippos are not endangered, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared them as vulnerable. Habitat loss and illegal poaching are the top reasons for their decline.
Their overall population is estimated between 125,000 and 148,000, today.
Hippos Live in "Floats"
A group of hippos is a "float." It can also be referred to as a 'herd," "school," "pod," "dale" or "bloat."
Ten to 30 hippos live in a float at one time. However, some have up to 200 members!
A Bull Leads the Charge
No matter how small or large a float, a hippo herd is always led by a single, dominant bull.
Bachelor hippos looking for a new home are usually allowed inside a community, but they must respect the bull by not flirting with his ladies.
They Can't Swim — So, How Do They Get Around in Water?
Hippos are always in water, but they can't really swim. In fact, they can't even float. They sink to the bottom and walk, trot, jog or run at speeds of up to 15 mph.
To return to the top, they push themselves from the bottom with their hind legs and propel themselves up.
Check Out This Hippo Walking Under Water
The Hippo's Powerful Lungs
Adult hippos can hold their breath underwater for up to five minutes at a time and will resurface every three to five minutes for air. Younger hippos can do this for up to three minutes.
This is an automatic action — they can even do it in their sleep.
The Sleep Science of Hippos
Hippos are nocturnal and spend their nights looking for food. During the day, they sleep in short bursts.
When they sleep in deep water, they resurface without waking. In shallow water, they bring their nostrils just above the surface.
Blood Sweat: Natural Sunscreen
Hippos secrete a red, oily substance that some have nicknamed "blood sweat." It's neither blood or sweat. It's more of a natural sunscreen and is made up of two secretions — a red one (hipposudoric acid) and orange one (norhipposudoric acid).
These compounds are highly acidic. They inhibit bacteria and absorb ultraviolet light.
Their Need for Speed
Sure, they may look lazy and sluggish, but hippos can really move. They run between 19 and 25 mph for a few hundred yards at a time.
This means they can easily outrun you, so you should find cover immediately if you come across one. If you must run, do so in a zig-zag line because their mass makes it harder for them to change direction so easily.
We're Not Joking About How Fast They Can Run
Big Noise From a Big Animal
Hippos are LOUD. In fact, they're one of the loudest species on the African continent. The San Diego Zoo states that their vocalizations can go up to 115 decibels. They make all sorts of noises — grunting, grumbling, roaring, honking and wheezing are just part of their repertoire.
To get an idea of how loud they can be, think about a time you were too close to the speakers at a concert.
Or Just Listen to This
A Watery Birth
Hippos have their babies in shallow water, as it's the safest place for them to give birth.
Once they're born, babies will stay in the water with their moms for several days until they gain enough strength to venture onto land. If the water is too deep, they'll rest on their mama's back.
The Mating Season
Hippos don’t mate every year. After pregnancy (which lasts for about eight months), females don't ovulate again for at least 17 months.
Hippos reach sexual maturity when they are between 7 and 8 years old. Mating season typically happens towards the end of monsoon season.
Hippos can birth twins, but this is rare — they usually have one calf at a time.
Say Hello to Hippo Babies
A hippo baby weighs between 50 and 110 pounds and can hold its breath underwater for about 40 seconds.
When a baby dives, it is capable of closing its nose and ears to block out water. A hippo mom will sometimes hold her baby in her mouth while in the water.
A Gross Territorial Marker
If you've ever heard that hippos are "poo sprinkers," you may be surprised to find that it's true.
Hippos spray their poop by rotating their tail. This nasty habit is all about showing dominance — males do it to impress females and also mark their territory.
A Fishy Relationship
Hippos use fish as toothpicks. They visit areas where schools of fish live, open their mouths and let the fish pick at their teeth, gums and tongue to eat their leftovers and clean them of parasites.
This allows the hippo to avoid infection, and it feeds the fish at the same time.
Pablo Escobar's Cocaine Hippos
Hippos are invasive species in Colombia thanks to drug lord Pablo Escobar, whose pet hippos roamed his property in the 1970s. After his death, Colombian authorities left the hippos to their own devices, and they kept breeding.
There were initially four hippos on his property, and that number has since swelled to almost 200. Scientists believe those numbers will increase to about 700 over the next decade, which will change the local ecosystem.
The Colombian government wanted to cull the animals, but stopped after public outcry. They tried to sterilize them, but that proposition is too difficult and expensive. There is no solution that yet exists for this issue.
So They Just Run Wild
Meet Jessica the Hippo
Jessica the Hippo came to her human family as an emaciated calf in 2000. They hand-raised her, and she's now somewhat tame.
While she interacts with hippos in the wild, she always comes back to the Jourbet family, where she enjoys sweet iced tea and naps on their porch.
For a small fee, visitors to Hoedspruit, South Africa, can interact with Jessica and feed her snacks.
...And Her American Cousin, Fiona
Fiona has been a viral sensation since her birth in 2017. She is the first calf born at the Cincinnati Zoo in 75 years and the first of her kind to be scanned by ultrasound while still in the womb.
Her start was a little rocky — she was born a few weeks premature, could not stand and required 24/7 bottle feeds, but by the time she was 6 months old, she was well on the road to health.
Fiona is a star attraction at the zoo and on social media. She also predicted the Super Bowl every year since her birth with mixed results. (OK, she's no soothsayer, but's she adorable anyway!)