The hippo has an enormous head, a bulky, round body, and short stumpy legs with four toes each. The animal spots a short tail as well.
Large males average 3.5 meters in length and 1.5 meters in height and can weigh as much as 3,200 kg. Hippopotami display sexual dimorphism, which means that males are significantly larger than females (by up to 30 percent more).
Hippos are hairless, save for a few tufts of hair on their mouths. To make up for this vulnerability, they have a skin that can be up to 5 cm thick.
The mouth of a hippo is perhaps its most distinct feature. It can open up to half-a-meter wide, revealing 30 centimeter long tusks.
As an adaptation for an aquatic lifestyle, the hippo’s eyes, nostrils, and ears are situated high on its head to allow it to see, breathe, and hear while the rest of the body is submerged. During deep dives, the ears and nostrils fold shut to prevent water from rushing in.
Range & habitat
While the big and burly hippo that resides in sub-Saharan Africa is what comes to mind when the word hippo is mentioned, it has a smaller cousin known as the pygmy hippo (Hippo liberiensis). This is a miniature hippopotamus – weighing a maximum of 275 kg – that resides in the jungles of West Africa. Nonetheless, it is very rare and is extremely shy.
The common hippo, on the other hand, resides in sections of Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa. As mentioned, hippos are aquatic creatures, which means that they live in swamps, rivers, and lakes. An aquatic environment is vital to a hippo for several reasons.
First off, the buoyance effect of water helps to support the animal’s massive weight. Secondly, the vegetation that grows around water bodies comprises the majority of a hippo’s diet. Additionally, hippopotami can be prone to overheating, and the water helps keep them cool.
You might find it interesting that female hippos give birth in the water. Fortunately, babies are born with an innate ability to swim.
Hippos are nocturnal herbivores. They leave their watery nests at dusk to graze, but they don’t wander too far away for safety purposes. However, when there is no food nearby, they will travel several kilometers in search of pasture.
These animals prefer grazing on grass, reeds, or small shoots. Hippos have thick, muscular lips that can be up to 50 cm wide, which makes them ideal for pulling up grasses. To maintain its massive size, a hippo can eat up to 40 kg of food in a single night.
Hippopotami tend to exit and enter their water pools from the same spot. If an individual wanders off too far, they will look for a small pool nearby to rest until nightfall.
Behaviour & lifestyle
Hippos are extremely social and form herds of up to 100 individuals. They are sedentary in nature, typically spending the entire day resting in the water and only coming out at dusk to feed. As mentioned, they are mostly active at night.
Herds usually congregate in the middle of pools and are led by females. Dominant males usually rest on the outer edges of pools, where they stand to guard the rest of the herd.
Males begin competing for dominance once they reach sexual maturity, which is usually at around seven years. Display of dominance is an interesting affair as it involves opening the mouth wide to show off tusks, dung showering, and roaring.
Dominant males do not take well to aggressive displays by juveniles or other males and will fight if they have to.
Fights are common during the dry season when rivers start drying up, and pools start becoming prime pieces of real estate. Fights involve clashing tusks and biting.
Hippos have a polygynous system of mating, where one male breeds with a group of females. They do not have a specific breeding season; nonetheless, most mating tends to occur between February and August. They have a gestation period of 240 days, and babies are usually born underwater.
Hippo calves will live beside their mothers until the age of 7 or 8. Males reach sexual maturity between the ages of 7 and 9, while females attain reproductive maturity between the ages of 8 and 10.
Fun hippo facts
- Hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa, killing up to 500 people every year
- Despite their massive size, hippos can reach speeds of 30 km per hour
- The hippo’s large head accounts for a third of its body weight
- Many people believe (incorrectly) that hippo’s milk is pink!
Meet the hippopotamus
The enigmatic hippo is an animal that is best observed from a distance. This huge mammal will charge at the slightest provocation and can run faster than most humans. Nonetheless, they are docile for the most part.
Have you seen a hippo whilst on safari? Let us know in the comments below!
Read about more safari animals.
- San Diego Zoo: Hippopotamus
- Animal Planet Hippo Facts
- African Wildlife Foundation Fact Sheet: Hippopotamus
- Barklow, William E. “Amphibious Communication with Sound in Hippos, Hippopotamus Amphibius.” Animal Behaviour 68.5 (2004): 1125–32. Print.
- Lewison, R., and J. Pluhácek. “Hippopotamus amphibius.” The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.e.T10103A18567364, 2017.
- Walzer, Chris, and Gabrielle Stalder. “Chapter 59 – Hippopotamidae (Hippopotamus).” Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine, Volume 8. Eds. Miller, R. Eric, and Murray E. Fowler. St. Louis: W.B. Saunders, 2015. 584–92. Print.