You might think you know about the world’s third-largest mammal, but there are a few surprising misconceptions! World Hippo Day this month gives us a chance to celebrate these extraordinary creatures and to learn some little-known facts…

The whale’s “cousin” and D-I-Y sun cream…

The hippopotamus, in Greek meaning ‘river horse’, resides south of the Sahara in East Africa. They are the only sub-aquatic species to be found here, which makes them more closely related to cetaceans like whales and dolphins than you might guess. Hippos spend up to 16 hours per day submerged in lakes and rivers in an attempt to cool their sometimes two-ton bodies (calves weigh 100 lbs at birth!) from the African sun. However, like whales, they need to surface to breathe, and they do this every three to five minutes – even whilst asleep! Both whales and hippos have very little hair on their bodies, and they do not sweat. Instead, hippos produce a red, oily substance which helps protect their skin from the sun.

A SCUBA diver but not a triathlete…

Somewhat surprisingly, the hippopotamus does not actually ‘swim’. It controls its buoyancy by breathing and body positioning, and moves very quickly through the water by propelling itself off the bottom of rivers. This enriches the habitat and benefits fish populations as the mud is continuously ‘stirred-up’ by the hippo’s hefty feet. Hippos also scatter and spray their dung, which helps nourish the ecosystem.

Hungry hungry hippos…

Hippos are herbivores who like to consume up to 40kg of grass per meal. After sunrise, they will trek miles in search of tasty vegetation – covering a surprisingly large distance! This can reach up to 6 miles per night during the winter, when waterside vegetation has been depleted and the hippo needs to search further. The hippo’s reputation as purely a herbivore has been called into question, though, as despite being unsuited to eating meat, there have been reports of consumption of wildebeest and buffalo. If threatened on land, hippos can match a human’s speed for short distances – so if you find yourself between a hippo and the water, watch out!

Hippos and humans: Nightmare neighbours?

The hippo’s penchant for delicious vegetation has caused problems in South Africa, where some farmers have given up growing vegetables in favour of citrus trees, in which hippos are not interested. In turn, the hippos have provided after-dark security for the citrus farmers. However, it’s the majority of tourists who are unaware of how dangerous these fantastic animals can actually be. It’s worth remembering that, whilst hippos do not actively hunt humans, they are remarkably agile given their size. Signs of an impending threat are a hippo’s “yawn” and a laughing-type sound.

A vulnerable giant…

Unfortunately, the hippopotamus’ status according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature is currently ‘vulnerable’. Hippos are threatened by poaching, unregulated hunting and loss of habitat due to competition with humans for water and vegetable crops. There is some hope of conservation, though, as the African Wildlife Foundation helps communities build enclosures, fences, and construct ditches to protect agriculture and farmland from grazing hippos, thereby minimizing human-wildlife conflict.

Hannah Hunter
Rainbow-infused space unicorn... Veterinary receptionist who loves family, food, music and the ocean!

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